If asked to choose the best orange for eating fresh, most people would probably name the navel orange, a choice that is hard to dispute. But I feel that a mandarin orange, left to ripen to perfection on the tree, would give the navel close competition in eating qualities.
The mandarin orange belongs to the largest citrus family, many members of which are erroneously called tangerines. But no matter what they are called, mandarins form a citrus group whose fruit provide luscious eating and whose trees make a beautiful addition to the landscape.
The different mandarin varieties produce fruit that ranges in color from a deep reddish-orange to a very light orange. One quality that all the mandarin varieties share is that they are easy to peel and to separate into segments for eating.
Florida produces more mandarins than any other state and California ranks second. It is in the Orient, however, and especially in Japan, that the mandarin enjoys the highest level of popularity.
Most parts of Southern California, from the low deserts to all but the coldest areas, provide acceptable growing conditions for the mandarin.
If you would like to add a mandarin tree to your yard, you might consider five varieties that are usually available in local nurseries: Owari Satsuma, Kinnow, Kara, Clementine and Honey.
Owari Satsuma is my favorite. It has a sweet, tangy and yet mellow flavor that is hard to describe unless you've sampled it yourself. It is the most cold-tolerant of the mandarins and also thrives in the coastal valleys.
Kinnow has yellowish-orange fruit with a rich flavor and marvelous citrus aroma. The tree has an unusual willow-like shape that is most decorative.
Kara was developed in California. It produces large, bright orange fruit with a distinctive flavor. It is the juiciest of all the mandarins; it does not produce well in our desert areas.
Plant in March
Clementine generally grows on a small tree that produces beautiful, red-orange fruit. For best production, Clementine requires another variety, such as Kinnow, planted nearby for cross-pollination.
Honey produces very sweet fruit. It prefers the warmer interior valleys and is not a good bet for coastal areas.
Most mandarin varieties are available in standard and semi-dwarf-size trees. If your local nursery doesn't have the mandarin tree of your choice, ask them to order it for you from a wholesale grower.
March is an ideal month to plant mandarins in the coastal valleys. In colder areas, wait until late in the month or April. Purchase only healthy, vigorous-looking transplants. Avoid trees with long trunks. If the transplant has any fruit on it, pick it off so that the tree's energy can be used to produce foliage.
The tree must be planted in a sunny area. Dig a hole twice as wide as the root system, but only as deep as the soil the tree was originally grown in.
Test the soil for proper drainage by filling the planting hole with water. Let the water drain completely, then fill it again. If the water does not drain out within 12 hours, choose another planting site or refer to a soil guide for corrective methods. Improper drainage is the primary reason that young trees don't survive. After testing, place the tree in the planting hole and refill the hole with the soil that you originally removed.
Planting time is a good time to add slow-release fertilizer tablets. Such tablets will provide long-term nutrient release without burning the roots. They are also ideal for fertilizing established trees. Follow label directions carefully. To assure the roots of moisture, water during the planting process.
After planting, if there is no rain, water the new trees twice a week, daily during Santa Ana winds or hot spells, for the first six weeks. Then, if there is still no rain, start watering weekly. Deep watering is necessary, but keep water away from the lower trunk area.
When you plant new trees in hot-sun areas, the trunks should be painted with white-wash or wrapped with trunk band (available at most nurseries) to prevent sunburn damage.
The only pruning necessary is to remove dead wood or frost-damaged branches, or for decorative purposes. As far as pests are concerned, aphids and scale can pose problems. Consult your nursery staff for ways to control them.