Citrus are so ubiquitous in Southern California that you might think they’re native, and they’re so easy to grow here that I’ve gone for planting multiple varieties in my yard with the aim of getting fresh fruit off the trees almost every month of the year. While I do have some other types of citrus, the chart above shows the varieties of oranges and mandarins that I grow, along with the months in which their fruit taste best in my yard (twenty miles from the ocean in San Diego County).
The eating year basically runs like this: little mandarins starting in the fall, then peeling oranges in the winter, then bigger mandarins in the spring, and finally, slicing oranges in the spring through summer.
While I’m no citrus expert, nor have I tasted every cultivar of sweet orange or mandarin, I did grow up in a Southern California town that had been established as citrus groves (Glendora), and in fact I attended Citrus College, so throughout my youth I ran through orchards and tasted most all of the common kinds, including the old school, seedy types like Dancy tangerine, a tree of which my grandparents had in their yard.
Also, I’ve been lucky enough to tour the Citrus Variety Collection at the University of California, Riverside where one can taste about a thousand different kinds of citrus fresh off the trees — no exaggeration, they have about a thousand citrus varieties growing there! During my tour (part of which was videoed and posted on YouTube), I tasted most of the newer kinds of oranges and mandarins that can be purchased as plants at nurseries in Southern California these days.
When I moved to a new house in 2013, I based my decisions on what to grow in my new yard on those experiences: my citrus-eating youth and my tasting of new varieties at U.C.R.
Here are a few notes on why I chose the varieties that I chose:
The Kishu, also called Seedless Kishu or Kishu Mini, is the best fruit tree for kids. I wrote about why it’s God’s gift to children here, but in summary, the mandarins are not much bigger than a golf ball, the rind comes off so easily that you can peel it one handed, and, “It’s a burst of tangy sugar!” I wrote in my notebook during the tour at U.C.R.
I wanted a peeling orange, but instead of the standard Washington navel, which I grew up eating off of my grandparents’ trees, I decided to go with a slight twist and plant a Cara Cara navel orange tree. It is simply a Washington navel gone pink; a Washington navel tree growing in Venezuela was found with one branch producing fruit that was pink inside. The taste of Washington and Cara Cara are essentially the same — that is, mostly sweet with little bite — and both have large juice vesicles.
Gold Nugget mandarins are seedless and sweet, and Pixie mandarins are seedless and sweet, too. They’re both ripe from spring into summer. Why not just plant a Pixie or a Gold Nugget? For the same reason that I planted both a Kishu and a Satsuma for the fall into winter period: mandarins can have on and off years, but we don’t want to ever be lacking fresh mandarin fruit. It’s insurance. And to my taste buds, the Pixie and Gold Nugget mandarins have a certain richness and uniqueness to their sweetness that I enjoy. They’re also easy to peel, which isn’t unimportant. Speaking of peels, Gold Nuggets have the bumpiest, and some would say ugliest, peel of any mandarin I’ve seen, which is fun because it belies the fine flavor of the flesh inside.
You’ll notice three common threads: great taste, easy to peel, and seedless. All of my choices have those qualities. The reasoning is simple. Why grow a tree whose fruit is hard to peel and seedy when you can grow a tree whose fruit tastes just as good but is easy to peel and seedless?
Anyway, this monster of a Valencia orange tree takes us through summer. We not only eat its fruit through the hot months, but we use its canopy to sit under, we’ve hung a swing off of one branch, there are coffee plants and raspberry canes planted under its eastern drip line for afternoon shade. It really does take us through summer.
But come September and October we’re pretty much without fresh oranges and mandarins. Wah, wah. Two empty months. Rough life.
If you’re making decisions about what citrus to grow in your yard, you ought to read this publication from the University of California titled “Tried and True or Something New? Selected Citrus Varieties for the Home Gardener.” It includes descriptions of most of the varieties that I’m growing plus many other good ones. (By the way, I’d originally intended to plant USDA 88-2 instead of a Satsuma, but I had trouble finding a USDA 88-2 tree to buy at a nursery. USDA 88-2 is very tasty.)
Update, October 2018: The USDA 88-2 mandarin is now being sold by Four Winds Growers in Northern California. They ship to Southern California. The variety is listed by another name, “Lee x Nova,” because it is a cross of those two older varieties. Some people have also called this variety “Supernova.”
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