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The Dekopon arrives in California

A consortium of growers secretly began harvesting the flavorful fruit, which originated in Japan. It is being marketed here under the name Sumo.

February 17, 2011|By David Karp, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Dekopons await harvesting at Michael George's grove in Lindsay, Calif.
Dekopons await harvesting at Michael George's grove in Lindsay,… (David Karp )

I still remember the first time I tasted the legendary fruit the Dekopon. Think of a huge mandarin, easy to peel and seedless, with firm flesh that melts in the mouth, an intense sweetness balanced by refreshing acidity, and a complex, lingering mandarin orange aroma. I've tasted more than 1,000 varieties of citrus, and to me the Dekopon is the most delicious.

So delicious, in fact, that I've pursued it for more than a dozen years, despite astonishing secrecy and intrigue. But now, finally, the Dekopon is beginning to appear in California stores, and the full story can be told.

The Dekopon, which will be marketed here under the name Sumo, originated in 1972 at a government fruit research station in Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan, as a hybrid of Kiyomi tangor (a cross of orange and satsuma mandarin) and a ponkan, a large mandarin popular in Asia. Initially it seemed unpromising because of its homely appearance, with rough, yellow-orange skin and a distinctive bump at the top. But by the 1990s, as Japanese consumers came to appreciate its rich flavor, Dekopon became the country's most prized and expensive citrus, fetching as much as $10 apiece.

The variety's formal name is Shiranui, after a town near Kumamoto, but the prevalent marketing name in Japan is Dekopon, a compound of "deko," meaning "bump," and "pon," for ponkan. In what was widely regarded as a national embarrassment, in 1998 the variety somehow showed up being grown by Japan's rival, South Korea, where it is now farmed on Jeju island and called Hallabong (after Hallasan, the country's tallest mountain). It is also cultivated in Brazil, by Japanese immigrants, and in China. To protect United States growers from exotic pests and diseases, however, none of these fruits can be imported into this country.

I first heard about the Dekopon in December 1998 from Brad Stark Jr., a citrus grower in Strathmore, Calif. He was excited because he had imported budwood, branches for grafting new trees, from Japan to a plant quarantine station in Riverside. There, at his expense, scientists of the Citrus Clonal Protection Program used an ingenious technique to cleanse the variety of diseases, in a process that took several years.

Other would-be growers were not so scrupulous. In 2000, plant health authorities discovered that a company had smuggled Dekopon budwood from Japan and used it illegally to propagate 1,078 trees in a grove near Orange Cove in the San Joaquin Valley. This planting was infected with severe strains of tristeza virus, common in Japan, that could have seriously harmed American growers. The Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner fined the company and its principal $26,500, and the orchard was removed and burned.

At least one other group, a Ventura County outpost of a Japanese religious and farming cult, reportedly smuggled Dekopon budwood into California, but the trees derived from it now appear to have been pulled out.

After several years of trying, I finally was able to locate one specimen tree in a scientific collection. The fruit was almost preternaturally flavorful: The membranes around the segments were gossamer thin; the flesh was firm but juicy, almost silky; and it registered so high on my refractometer, an instrument for estimating sugar content, that I first thought the device was broken.

Trying to track down who might be growing the Dekopon, I contacted Stark but learned that his family's company had gone bankrupt. The precious Dekopon budwood, which had been released from quarantine, was in the custody of a former Stark grower whom I knew, John Fisher of McFarland. But Fisher wouldn't return my calls, and as I hounded citrus nurserymen and farmers for more information, the Dekopon seemed to remain tantalizingly out of reach.

I'd heard there were trees at the University of California's budwood orchard at Lindcove, but when I visited in 2006, someone had just cut them down. I knew for the first time the true meaning of the word "stumped."

Eventually a nurseryman who was well informed about cutting-edge citrus varieties, Roger Smith of TreeSource Citrus Nursery, hinted at what was going on. "I'm not happy that you found out about the Dekopon," he said, his voice very serious. "Some heavy hitters I work with are interested in it, and [they] would like to have a few years of lead time to grow the trees before everyone else finds out about it."

Smith feared that if competitors discovered the Dekopon, they could import and clean up the budwood and get started growing the variety. It would be best if I kept quiet about it, he added.

When I pursued the subject, he referred me to his boss, Michael George, general manager of Suntreat Packing & Shipping, but George dodged my calls for three years. Finally, in January 2009, George met with me at his office in Lindsay, 50 miles southeast of Fresno, in the heart of the San Joaquin citrus belt.

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