Choosing a mandarin tree to plant can be overwhelming because of the abundance of varieties available to us in California. One way to narrow the possibilities is to consider seasonality. Among the types of mandarins that ripen earliest, I grow two that I like and that are widely available for purchase at nurseries: Satsuma and Kishu.
Would one of these be suitable for your yard and family? How do they compare?
Fruit eating qualities
The size of the Satsuma mandarin is far larger than Kishu. A Satsuma is only a little smaller than an orange. A Kishu is very small, not much bigger than a golf ball.
Both are considered seedless, but I often find a single seed in a Satsuma whereas I can’t remember ever finding a seed in a Kishu.
Both peel very easily, especially later in their seasons when their peels get “baggy.” A Satsuma’s peel is much thicker and bumpier than Kishu’s though.
Once peeled, the Satsuma segments inside still have many strings and pith attached. It can take a little extra work to get those off if you don’t like to eat them. However, Kishu segments are relatively clean once the peel is removed.
Here’s that photo again:
Eating a Kishu is a refined experience: the membrane around the segments is thin and the juice vesicles inside are imperceptible. The flavor is richly sweet although not remarkable. There’s no tang, no extra anything to put your finger on. You can be patient and eat the fruit segment by segment or you can easily eat a whole Kishu in one or two bites.
Eating a Satsuma is a meatier experience: there’s plenty of membrane to chew on and fat juice vesicles to explode. The flavor is slightly more distinct than Kishu, and it is the same flavor as canned mandarins. It’s nearly a full snack to eat a whole Satsuma.
The Kishu tree is smaller and bushier compared to the Satsuma. My Kishu is about six years old (planted from a five-gallon container) and is barely as tall as me. My Satsuma is a year younger and I’ve pruned it a bit, but it is already taller than me.
Both trees have produced well each year, but the Kishu has been a little more productive in terms of number of fruit.
While the two varieties are early season mandarins, the Kishu fruit becomes palatable a bit ahead of the Satsuma fruit. My kids start eating the Kishus after Halloween although I don’t find them appealing until closer to Christmas.
At that time, I’m lucky if I get any because the Kishu fruit is their favorite out of all of our citrus. It’s easy for the kids to peel, and it’s easy for them to chew, and the fruit is small enough for even a two-year old to finish.
The Satsumas end up being my snack tree because the kids find it harder to peel, seedy (one seed in a fruit is “seedy,” they say!), and too big. This is all compared to the Kishus.
(See my post about Kishu and the kids.)
Sometime in January, the Satsuma fruit starts to dry out inside. Satsumas don’t hang on the tree with quality for very long after they’ve become sweet. But they provide a couple months of delicious winter snacks.
Around February or March, our family switches from eating Satsuma and Kishu mandarins to navel oranges and later mandarin varieties.
(See my post, “Oranges and mandarins fresh off the tree almost all year.”)
If I could only have one of these early mandarin trees, which would I choose? I would keep the Kishu. Partly, that’s because the kids adore it, but I also don’t mind its small size. I just grab more than one if necessary.
Is Kishu or Satsuma right for you? Some people find Kishu’s diminutive size annoying. If you suspect you’d prefer a larger, meatier mandarin — with a somewhat richer flavor — then go Satsuma.
In this video I peel, taste, and talk Satsuma and Kishu mandarins:
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