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Move over, lemons. Here are 5 juicy tangerines to grow in the Bay Area

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 6/17/2022 By Earl Nickel

Drive through any Bay Area neighborhood and you will likely see a good number of lemon and lime trees. They are durable and heavy fruiting trees, but did you know that you can also grow a variety of tangerines here in Northern California?

Tangerines are normally smaller, with a more intense flavor than the standard eating orange. They owe their name to their roots in Tangier, Morocco. They were first imported from that city to Florida in the 1830s, and a seedling from that import eventually became known as a Dancy tangerine. It was the first tangerine sold commercially and was still the most popular until the 1970s. It has since been eclipsed by hardier varieties used in commercial growing operations.

You are likely familiar with two of the most popular tangerines — Satsuma and Clementine. Satsumas, with their soft crinkly skin that’s easy to peel, appear in stores in December and are often called Christmas oranges. Clementines have thin, very tight skins and are often called Cuties. They have a super sweet taste, making them a popular choice for those seeking a mandarin orange. Here are five of the best tangerines available in the trade.

Satsuma With their soft, pebbled and easy-to-peel skin and their sweet, seedless taste, Satsumas have become one of the most widely known eating tangerines. The fruit is a dark orange color, extremely tender and often described as the sweetest of all citrus fruits, with only a light acidity. Boxes of them flood the stores at Christmas time, each orange often wrapped in green tissue paper. They are best eaten fresh, though they can be canned. They make a wonderful complement to many salads and can be used where you want a sweet citrus accent. Choose fruits that are the heaviest (more juice!), with a firm touch and tight peel. Satsumas can be stored on the counter for up to a week or refrigerated for up to a month. Like most citrus, Satsumas are hybrids, here combining a mandarin with a pomelo.

Clementine Clementines are justifiably famous for being the perfect snack. Almost perfectly round and typically seedless, with a honey-sweet taste and an easy-to-peel and segment fruit, they are the perfect portable orange and middle-of-the-day refresher. Everybody loves their yummy taste, and parents love how economical and nutritious they are. Clementines have long been enjoyed in Europe. Their winter arrival at markets in Spain and Morocco is a centuries-old tradition in those cultures. The fruit adds brightness to cakes, sweet bread and other desserts, as well as to poultry marinades and glazes. Look for bags of this delicious orange in your grocery store.

Honey Murcott Experts consider the Honey Murcott the best tasting of all mandarins, with complex flavors reminiscent of honey and cinnamon. Not typically found in grocery stores, the Honey Murcott fruit — firm but extremely juicy — is an ideal variety to be grown for personal consumption. It is also blessed with thin, easy-to-peel skin. Even the color of the flesh is dazzling, being a rich reddish-orange color. Its high juice content means you can squeeze it to serve as fresh orange juice — with a kick! Trees mature late — in late January to early March — but fruit heavily.

Tango This new hybrid tangerine was introduced by UC Riverside and is very similar to the Honey Murcott — but without seeds. It possesses a deep orange fruit that is equal parts sweet and tart. Its smooth skin is easy to peel, making it a great snack orange. Given its high juice content, it is ideal for juicing, be that to drink by itself or for adding zest when juiced with other fruits. High in vitamin C and antioxidants like all mandarins, this Tango orange packs a healthy punch. Although it ripens in December or January, it is best left on the tree an extra 4-6 weeks to promote the rind turning orange.

Gold Nugget Another UC Riverside introduction, this exceptionally delicious and seedless variety was an instant hit. It showcases a thick, bumpy rind, making it instantly recognizable. The flavor is rich, tangy and full-bodied. Exceptionally juicy, it is not only a delicious eating orange but ideal for juicing or for use in baking. One of the hardier tangerine trees, it is frost tolerant, making it an ideal choice for our colder Bay Area. And unlike many other mandarins, fruit holds well on the tree throughout summer. It is similar in form and taste to the Pixie variety.

Planting and caring for your mandarin tree

Your first decision in buying a mandarin tree is whether to put it in a container or in the ground. As a rule of thumb, if your location freezes (32 degrees Fahrenheit or colder), it is best to grow it in a pot. That way, you can move it inside for that period when the ground will freeze. The Gold Nugget variety can handle temperatures down to 30 degrees. If your yard gets only the occasional night that dips below freezing, one can plant the tree in the ground and protect it with a frost blanket on those nights.

All commercial citrus trees, including tangerines, are grown on grafted stock. This gives them greater hardiness and disease resistance. This affects you as a gardener only if branches appear below the graft “knuckle.” Prune off these branches. They will not produce fruit. Bear in mind, it often takes tangerines three years to really fruit heavily. Be patient.

In the ground Position your tree in a full-sun location and, if possible, where it will benefit from reflected heat (on the side of your house, near a cement walkway, on a slight hill). Tangerines need the heat to fully sweeten. Tangerine roots need good drainage so make sure to vigorously amend the area where it will be planted. Situate the plant so the crown is 2-3 inches above ground level, backfill and, finally, give that area a good soak. Once settled, the crown should still be slightly above the level of the surrounding ground. Come late fall, apply 2-3 inches of bark mulch to the area around the trunk to protect the roots from the cold.

In a container Make sure you choose a container that will leave lots of room for the young tree to grow. Tangerines aren’t fussy about the soil’s pH so loose potting soil is fine. As in a ground planting, make sure the crown of the plant is above the soil line once watered in. In both cases, make sure your new tree is initially kept well-watered, while not having the roots wet all the time. One possible advantage of growing your tangerine in a container is that it gives you the freedom to situate it in the warmest spot in your garden.

Feeding and pruning Wait until a month after planting to begin fertilizing. Use a fertilizer meant for citrus. Granular is preferred, as it feeds slowly over time. Hold off fertilizing your tree in the winter then resume in early spring. Prune only as needed, usually if one side is outgrowing the other or if the plant has developed a thicket of interior branches.

Earl Nickel is an Oakland nurseryman and freelance writer. Email: food@sfchronicle.com

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