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Struggling
Over Names

Because of the pronounced differences between different types of mandarins, the fruit presents a marketing challenge. With navel oranges, different cultivars produce fruit that is indistinguishable. But different varieties of mandarins, in contrast, produce fruit that varies widely in sweetness and other qualities, and that can befuddle consumers who have grown accustomed to uniformity in crops. "Whether you market them all as mandarins or as something else is something that people are struggling with right now," says Dr. Tracy Kahn, curator of the mandarin cultivars at the UC Riverside Citrus Research Center.



Japanese Satsumas Gain on Old-Fashioned Tangerines

New Clementines May Win Back Lost Ground
'Pixie-Like' May Be Best Mandarin Ever

Clementines and clementine hybrids are the most common varieties of mandarin oranges – often called tangerines -- in the United States. But satsumas from Japan are steadily gaining market share at the clementines’ expense.

There are probably 100 varieties of satsuma in Japan, about a dozen of which have been released in the United States. One of the satsuma family’s outstanding attributes is "zipper skin," loose-fitting shells that zip right off with a couple of tugs. Even more significantly, they are seedless, as signs that are conspicuous at satsuma displays in farmers markets this time of year boast.

But the clementine has virtues of its own. It is better suited to more of the citrus-growing regions of the United States than the satsuma, scientists say. While satsumas can shake off a night at 18 degrees with no ill effects, and in fact need relatively cold weather to do their best, clementines can take more heat.

Besides clementines taste better, the variety’s fans insist. They are more acidic with old-fashioned tangerine taste.

But even the clementine’s most committed devotees acknowledge that it can stand some improvement, particularly in the area of seeds. Though an intensive search has been underway for years, no one has yet come forth with a seedless clementine. But a number of newly available Moroccan and Spanish imports offer hope for a breakthrough.

The star of the new bunch is the clementina fina. Field testing hasn’t yet been completed, but the consensus in mandarin circles is that it is the finest clementine ever released in the United States. It has good color, nice shape and is a relatively easy peeler. Like all the latest clementines, it isn’t very seedy to begin with. And when it is grown in a large block with bees excluded, seeds are almost nonexistent.

Besides ease of peeling and seediness, the timing of the harvest is another trait in which clementines and satsumas compete.

So far, the satsumas are winning the all-important race to get fruit to market before the end of September. The earliest variety is called the okitsu wase. It achieves a respectable 10:1 sugar-acid ratio by September, though it takes a dose of post-harvest ethylene gas to get the peel to turn orange. In taste it is a pale shadow of later satsuma varieties, like the oware, the most common satsuma variety in California. "Fortunately when the okitsu wase comes in, you don’t have an Oware to compare it with. All you have to compare it with is another okitsu wase," says Ray Copeland, a retired cooperative extension adviser in Tulare County and a mandarin expert, explaining why the early but tasteless satsuma can attract any buyers at all.

The earliest clementine, a desert-dwelling clementine-tangelo hybrid called the Fairchild, reaches the markets by the first of November. It, too, isn’t up to the standards of later varieties. But there’s hope in the research pipeline for a better, earlier clementine. Copeland mentioned a Spanish variety called the merisol, which has a slow-growing but productive tree that produces harvestable fruit by the end of September in Morocco and a little earlier than that in Spain.

Judging from the scuttlebutt among mandarin experts, both the satsuma and clementine could get a run for their money from Pixies in the years to come. The original Pixie was developed at the UC Riverside Citrus Research Center and released for commercial production some years back. The Pixie is "a fine piece of fruit," says Kahn, and seedless to boot. Now, there is an even more promising variation in the research pipeline. Dr. Mikael Roose, at UC Riverside, is working on the new variety, which has been informally dubbed Pixie-like. Because its fruit was considered too small, it was passed over by the earlier generation of citrus scientists. But with some good breeding, it turns out to have fruit that is even larger than the Pixie, with a richer flavor and ability to hold its excellence later into the season. The variety is not zipper-skinned at first but turns into an easy peeler later on. And it is truly seedless.

Citrus scientists apparently don’t want to put a jinx on the new variety by talking about it publicly while it is still in testing.

More than a decade has passed since the Citrus Research Center released its last invention, a pomelo cross called the Melogold, in 1986. The so-called Pixie-like is in a race with another exciting fruit – a cross between a pomelo and a blood orange – to be the next release.


Copyright 1997 Seasonal Chef