Citrus, The Dark Season Delights
If you aren't familiar in the farming world, winter is referred to as the "dark" or "dead" season given that trees go dormant and temperatures drastically slow down activity in the soil. As the chill in the air intensifies and the days get shorter, nature provides a burst of vibrant flavors to brighten our winter palates – citrus fruits.
From juicy oranges and tangy grapefruits to zesty lemons and limes, these fruits add a refreshing twist to our meals. Citrus fruits pack a nutritional and health benefit one-two punch during the colder months when cold and flu symptoms are circulating and the variety of in season food wanes. Have you ever wondered why citrus fruits are particularly abundant and flavorful during winter? We'll delve into some reasons for that as well as some general citrus facts and tips for tree care, harvesting and we'll even throw in a recipe for you!
Let's start with the basics..
Citrus is a genus of the Rutaceae family which includes all tropical and subtropical fruits such as orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime and a host of hybrids and lesser species. Oranges are said to have been introduced to Europe around the time of the Crusades and Moorish occupation of Spain. It's origins are pretty obscure today though rumor has it their genesis was in India, from there they were cultivated in Arabia and migrated westward.
Now, why are these fruits so good in, and for, the winter?..
Citrus trees are evergreens that are intolerant to frost but can bear colder temperatures to variant degrees, limes being the most sensitive to even a hint of frost. The hardiest of them all, is the Kumquat. Oranges can withstand temperatures under 30 degrees without too much damage. You see, it's the cold hardiness of citrus that makes it taste better, as the chill affects the structure within the fruit, the natural sugars within are activated.
Citrus typically thrives in very hot tropical climates; however, the fruit is of much better taste and quality where it's cooler -- semitropical regions produce the best fruit. Dry summer winds require wind breaks to protect a crop, while excessive humidity can bring fungal diseases. Here, in Northern California, Zone 9b, we have a dry summer, subtropical, Mediterranean" climate -- while its winters are cold enough to give the citrus that excellent flavor, wind and irrigation can pose a challenge.
Benefits of eating citrus
Oranges probably hold the crown in the citrus kingdom in terms of overall benefits for the body. They are rich in folate, Vitamin C of course, Vitamin B, Vitamin A, potassium and calcium! Both folate and vitamin B are essential to regulating the production of serotonin and dopamine which are "feel good" and motivational neurochemicals.
Citrus fruits are also high in fiber aiding in digestion, they help to absorb iron which is important for your blood and immune system and have powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents that can help reduce some cancer risks. Those same compounds are also helpful for the skin. So not only do they taste great, eating citrus will improve the quality of your life! These are just to name a few because there's certainly more upsides to these delights.
Most commercial oranges are varieties of Citrus sinensis, a common sweet orange, unlike its wild ancestors that can be found growing in parts of the tropics which are dismally sour in comparison. Much different than the aromatic, brisk fruits we grow modern day. As mentioned above, oranges are one of the most dependable sources of Vitamin C (one orange on average contains approximately 75-100mg). From tree to table, they provide much more nutritional value. Oranges have also been said to aid with clearing mucus from nose and head and some respiratory ailments such as bronchitis.
The winter classic is the Navel orange with its large, easy-to-peel super sweet fruit! We grow Navel, Valencia, and Blood Orange on the homestead and every year we share the same citrus craze!
You can get fresh organic Navel oranges in our homegrown citrus boxes!
Oranges require high amounts of organic nitrogen when growing. They prefer a slightly acidic soil with a Ph of about 5.5.-6 and while they'll benefit from trace minerals such as zinc and iron you want to avoid over fertilizing so you will want to be mindful of recommended applications depending on the age and type of tree you have. When the trees are young, they should be kept consistently moist. In around its second season or so the watering can then go to one heavy watering every 2-3 weeks.
If you have an established tree to harvest check firmness. Gently squeeze the orange. A ripe orange should give slightly to pressure. Typically, the oranges will become more fragrant as they ripen also, but the best gauge is to taste! After the winter solstice on Dec. 21st is a good time to start checking for ripeness. :)
So far as is known the seeds were brought to the West Indies originally, Citrus paradisi was first thought to be shaddock, another type of citrus fruit, at any rate we wound up with grapefruit. The correct species name, Pomelo or pummelo, isn't popular in this country, and it was dubbed grapefruit for its growth habit of forming grape-like clusters on the inner branches of the tree.
Grapefruit like oranges, don't present any problems when it comes to pollination and the only way they differ in care from oranges they tend to need more fertilizer.
Extracts from seeds can be used as an antiseptic and pomelo contains lycopene which is a beneficial antioxidant. Pomelo is the largest citrus fruit and ancestor to the common red and pink grapefruit seen commercially. It tends to be sweeter to taste and less acidic. Be aware however, grapefruit has compounds that can interefere with the absorption of statin based medication so be sure to check with your primary care physician and/or health care provider.
Lemons & Limes
Citrus limonia are said to have been introduced to Europe at around the same time as oranges were and brought to America by Spanish occupiers. Being that we have a lesser number of uses for lemons it is not as widely cultivated as orange. Lemons are more tender than oranges and grapfruit, but hardier than limes.
Lemon trees can grow up to 20 feet high with an open head, but like its other cousins there are dwarf varieties perfect for smaller spaces. They can bare flowers, ripe and unripe fruit simultaneously and under favorable conditions they bear fruit consistently.
Several lemon hybrids are grown peculiarly, such as the Meyer lemon native to China, of high acclaim. It is a cross between a mandarin orange and a lemon and the flavor sweeter and less acidic. Their scent is akin to bergamot and more reminiscent of herbs and spices.
Lemon can be pot grown and some pot grown trees have been known to last up to 100 years!
The most tender of the family, limes or Citrus aurantifolia, are semitropical for the most part are best cultivated in the southern tip of Florida and certain regions of California, such as ours in the Central Valley. Limes as we know are great for desserts and cool cocktails and have much of the same uses as the lemon though they contain less acid and more sugar.
The trees are almost everbearing given the temperatures don't drop too low inuring blossoms. When entirely ripe, limes are yellow like lemons! So yes, the green limes you love however fresh they may be, are not fully ripe. Limes are extremely tolerant of soils and are shallow rooted. Be mindful of keeping the bud joints high on them if rainfall is heavy in your area and watch for low hangin branches. As with most citrus, always watch for suckers and cut those whenever possible. You'll notice no buds or anything on those shoots and they will be of a different color and flesh than the normal branches.
Tips and Care
- Two to four trees whether Valencia or Navel can easily keep a medium to large sized family supplied with citrus year-round.
- If you are buying a root stock it is better to buy a large one-year tree than a second-year tree that took that time to achieve the same growth.
- The trunk above the union of bud should be at least three quarters of an inch thick on a one-year old tree.
- Best way is to purchased a balled tree from you nursery of choice which consists of the root ball wrapped in burlap assuring the roots can maintain moisture over a period of time.
- Your planting site should have good drainage to a depth of about 4 feet.
- Sandy loam soil is best with an optimum Ph of 5.5-6.2
- Large orange trees need about 20 to 25 feet of space around canopy
- Keep tree consistently moist up until second season then decrease to once a week heavy water.
- Fertilize with organic nitrogen sources such as blood meal or composted manure. It should be applied once every couple months during active growth or three times a year (a third of recommended annual amount once in Jan/Feb, Mar/Apr, and in Aug/Sept)
- Pruning should only be to remove dead and diseased tissue or branches and/or to shape a young tree.
- Size and quality of oranges is not affected when pruning citrus so it is not done for that reason. However lemons, do benefit from annual pruning.
- Pruning can be done at any time of year. Especially to remove suckers and water sprouts.
There are many more varieties and types of citrus to explore and maybe we'll revisit that later, but hopefully you have a better understanding on why we love our citrus so much!
The unique combination of harvest timing, flavor development, and cultural traditions makes citrus fruits a cherished and essential part of the winter experience here at our homestead. We hope we've imbued you with the same spirit. So, as winter settles in, embrace the zestiness of citrus fruits -- add a burst of sunshine to your plate and a boost of health to your body!
J.I. Rodale, 1977. How To Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method. Rodale Press
Judy Pray, 2010. Garden Wisdom & Know-How: Everything You Need To Know to Plant, Grow, and Harvest. Black Dog & Levanthal Publishers.