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December, 2013

U.S. citrus consumption averages out to be about 84 pounds per year per person.

In December, retail produce departments are dominated by two of the most iconic of all fresh fruits--apples and oranges in a myriad of sizes, shapes and colors. And, yes, these two can be compared in one respect, seasonal availability. Apples are a traditional symbol of the fall harvest season, so it seems logical that they should garnish yards of display space right now. On the other hand, it’s a bit incongruous to have such a wide selection of brightly colored citrus varieties to choose from when much of the country is dealing with rain, sleet and snow. Still, a slow stroll down the citrus aisle this month is a visual treat that usually matches apple displays foot-for-foot.

Variety of Citrus

Winter’s retail citrus section looks more like a Rose Parade float, blooming in all sizes of juicy roundness that blanket the long display case in shades of vibrant orange, lemony yellows, emerald greens and pastel to crimson rose. Some of the parade participants on display this month include: Navel, Blood and Cara Cara Oranges; Satsuma, Tango and Neapolitan Mandarins, Ponderosa and Variegated Pink Lemons; Cocktail, Oro Blanco and Pummelo Grapefruits; Yuzu, Kumquats and Limequats! As the season peaks over the next two month, Pixie Tangerines and a host of other mandarin and specialty citrus varieties will dominate the New Year’s harvest menu. The industry that produces this “other” winter bounty is an interesting and very location-specific world of uniform, green groves…

For those who advocate eating only locally produced fresh foods, aka the 100-mile rule, citrus is problematic. There are only four states in the nation that produce citrus commercially: Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas. Highly frost sensitive, citrus trees need balmy weather. Exposure to just one night of below-freezing temperatures can ruin a crop; sustained low temperatures over just a few days will kill a tree. That also means there will be no limes in those gin & tonics for you 100-milers in those citrus states, either; the Florida lime industry was completely destroyed by a hurricane, so imports account for 100 percent of the lime supply in this country.


Citrus trees are evergreens that generally peak in fruit production from November through January. However there are a few varieties, like the Meyer and Ponderosa lemon, which continually bud and produce fruit year-round, though they both have better productive months than others. An orange tree can grow to be 30 feet tall and live for 100 years. A single citrus tree will produce over 60,000 flowers, but only 1% will turn to fruit. Unlike many other types of fruit, most citrus can be left on the tree for some time without becoming overripe; conversely, once picked, citrus does not continue to ripen.

Another comparison with apples is that, like apples, planting a citrus seed from a Valencia orange, for instance, will not necessary produce a clone of the parent tree that produced the seed. All trees grown from a seed will differ slightly in individual size, sugar content and resistance to disease. Uniform quality and predictable yields are a must in the business of citrus growing and distribution, so a grafting process is utilized in order to insure that consistency. It’s actually an amazing phenomena in the science of agriculture. A single bud is taken from a branch of a desired variety and inserted into the bark of a one-year-old common rootstock seedling that was grown from a seed. This bud grows into the top of the sapling and, as it matures, the tree takes on the same characteristics of size and fruit quality of the mother tree that produced the grafted bud. Do this over and over, planting those seedlings in rows; the result is a grove of citrus trees that look as though they were stamped out from a mold!


While most citrus blooms do rely on insects for pollination to become fruit, some varieties have a very unique ability to produce fruit without any pollination. In fact, this trait also defines whether a fruit is seedless or not; no insect pollination, no seeds. A pollinated variety, like a Valencia Orange, produces fruit with seeds. The common Washington navel, which does not produce enough viable pollen to attract insects, is always seedless. While most pollination happens between trees of the same variety, there are also exceptions like the tasty little Clementine, which requires cross-pollination with another citrus variety to produce fruit.

By the way, the Washington navel is not named because it is grown in the not-so-balmy Pacific Northwest. The variety is actually native to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. In 1870 twelve budded trees were received from Baja by William 0. Saunders, superintendent of gardens and grounds for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. These trees were planted in the USDA’s greenhouse and over the next few years the trees were propagated for distribution. Three of these grafted saplings were sent to a grower in Riverside, California, who referred to them as the Washington navel because that’s where they came from, from his perspective, and the name stuck. By the way, while one tree died shortly after arrival, the other two are the parents of virtually all of California’s navel orange trees in production today. Amazingly, one of those trees is still alive and still producing fruit!

U.S. citrus consumption averages out to be about 84 pounds per year per person. That amount of fruit would represent a whole lot of peeling by each of us; except that 63 lbs. of that average is actually processed citrus (juices) and 52 lbs. of the processed poundage is orange juice, a breakfast staple in this country. Of the four states that supply the marketplace, Florida produced 63 percent of the total U.S. citrus crop in 2012; California produced 34 percent, and Texas and Arizona combined produced the remaining 3 percent.

Unfortunately, the rise of urbanization has impacted citrus production in all regions, especially the groves of Southern Californian and Arizona. Over the past forty years Arizona’s commercial citrus groves, which peaked in the early 1970s at 80,000 acres, has dwindled to about 20,000 acres today. In Southern California, Orange County no longer produces oranges at all because it became more profitable to grow houses. Most all of the state’s citrus production has been pushed north, predominantly into the San Joaquin Valley.

While most citrus varieties are either eaten out of hand, used in cooking, or juiced, the fruit has a few other interesting uses in the kitchen as well as in other parts of the house…

Lemon Olive Oil: Add 3 Tablespoons of zest to 1 cup of olive oil, steep for two weeks and then strain.

Liquor: Citrus-infused vodka makes excellent cocktail.

Lemon Zest Tip: Frozen whole peels grate easily into zest-on-demand when needed.

Kindling: A few dried peels thrown in a fireplace makes for an especially fragrant fire.

All-purpose cleaner: Fill a jar of white vinegar with citrus peels, let steep for two weeks, strain and then mix 50:50 with water.

Microwave Cleaner: Put lemon rinds in a microwave-safe bowl half-filled with water. Cook on high for 10 minutes or until the water boils and steam condenses fully inside. Remove the hot bowl and simply wipe down the interior of the oven with a damp towel. Smells good too!

Natural Mosquito Repellant: Rub orange peel onto skin, the oil in the peel acts as a repellent. So I guess there is some truth to that old adage about not comparing; at least don’t try to clean a microwave or get any insect protection using an apple!