Jim Churchill holds Marty Fujita, his barn cat at Churchill Orchard in Ojai,… (David Karp )
Reporting from Ojai — Small and unprepossessing they may be, but Pixie mandarins are a farmers market favorite for their seedlessness, rich flavor — combining the best of mandarin and orange — and late season. In the last decade, Pixies grown in this picturesque valley in northwestern Ventura County have achieved cult status in Southern California because they're local, distinctive and delicious. Still, much about this charismatic mandarin remains little known, particularly its serendipitous path to renown.
About 90 years ago, Howard Frost, a breeder at the Citrus Experiment Station in Riverside, made a number of crosses using King tangor, a natural mandarin-orange hybrid from Vietnam, which required a lot of heat to ripen; he hoped this would make daughter varieties late in season, when few other mandarins were available. King was also large and highly colored, so Frost crossed it with Dancy, the small-fruited but highly flavored and colored tangerine, hoping to create large, tasty, late-season and attractive new varieties.
It didn't quite work out: The best of the King-Dancy hybrids, which Frost named Kincy, was large and had flavor similar to the modern Pixie, but it had seeds and never became commercialized. But a seedling of Kincy, planted in 1927, caught Frost's eye because its fruit was very late in season and completely seedless, a rare combination then and now.
No one knows for sure the identity of the variety that pollinated Kincy and became Pixie's father; Kincy might even have pollinated itself. But my guess is that Wilking mandarin, a cross of Willowleaf mandarin and King tangor, was the father and contributed to the Pixie's makeup its medium orange color, small fruit size and a touch of its spicy aroma of Mediterranean mandarin.
"It's a reasonable guess, as reasonable as one can make," says Mikeal Roose, professor of genetics and citrus breeder at UC Riverside.
Because of its small size and relatively pale color, the future Pixie didn't seem particularly promising, and it was not until 1965 that it was released by Frost's successors at UC Riverside, with the modest endorsement that it could be valuable for home garden use because of its seedlessness and late season. The name "Pixie" seemed particularly appropriate not only for the fruit's diminutive size but also because it often sported an unusual and distinctive furrowed "nose" at the stem end.
In the 1960s, farmers cooperating with university researchers conducted test plantings of Pixie around the state. Pixie is naturally low in acidity, so its flavor in most areas was a touch on the bland side, good but not great. But of all citrus, mandarins are most influenced by microclimate, and at Frank Noyes' orchard in Ojai, environment and variety were perfectly matched. Ojai is blazing hot in the summer, which makes the fruit very sweet, but it also cools down 20 or 30 degrees almost every night, which allows the fruit to hang on the tree late into spring, color up and retain enough acidity to give it a balanced tang.
Elmer Friend, an Ojai citrus grower who saw Pixie trees at Noyes' test plot, planted his first block of the variety around 1970, recalls Tony Thacher, his son-in-law and successor at Friend's Ranches, which now farms about 11 acres of the fruit. At first the Pixie was a tough sell to grocery chains, because of its petite proportions. Thacher remembers taking his fruit to a high-end chain where the buyer shook his head, saying, "No way can we sell such a tiny fruit."
But Thacher and a few other Ojai growers, notably Jim Churchill and his wife, Lisa Brenneis, owners of Churchill Orchard, believed in the Pixie and persevered, gradually expanding their plantings and promoting the variety's reputation to citrus lovers, chefs and high-end stores near and far. One lucky break has been that the fruit ships and stores quite well; because of its firm flesh and dense rind, it keeps well without waxing and so avoids the development of off-flavors that often bedevils waxed mandarins.
Today 41 growers in Ojai farm roughly 200 acres of Pixies and market their fruit through an informal association led by Thacher, Churchill and Brenneis. The season, which is about two weeks late this year, typically begins in early March and runs through May or June. The fruit can be good even later, but demand is lower once summer stone fruit floods the markets, and late-season Pixies can be dry.
One characteristic of Pixie that makes it a challenge for growers and marketers is that it is a strong alternate bearer, meaning that one year it will produce a large crop of very small fruit and the next year a scanty crop of large fruit. Growers try to control this problem by pruning in off years, but fruit size gets smaller as the trees mature, and this year many orchards set large crops of small fruit.