If you ever wondered what made Cuties, the box of mandarin oranges found at Safeway and Costco, so delicious, it could depend on what time of the year you buy them.
“Before Christmas, [Cuties] are clementines while after Christmas they are W. Murcotts,“ said Tracy Kahn, curator for the UC Riverside citrus variety collection.
Cuties represent a new movement in the United States for a larger market of mandarin oranges, small orange-like fruit that are sweet and tend to be seedless. Their appeal lies in their sweetness and easy-to-peel rind. As Kahn explains, they are the fruit for people on-the-go.
“People these days are driving cars and moving fast so they want something that doesn‘t require a knife or a peeler,“ Kahn said.
Unique to the United States, some mandarin oranges are called tangerines. According to Kahn, the term was coined for tangerines that shipped from Tangier, Morocco.
Mandarin oranges are one of the three ancestral citrus species. Most modern day oranges are actual hybrids of mandarins, pummelos or citrons.
Native to China and northern India, they were first brought to Florida around 1565 from Spain, according to the UC Riverside‘s website. Since then, oranges have been grown primarily in Florida and California.
“Most mandarins are grown in the San Joaquin Valley here in California,“ said Craig Kallsen, citrus farm advisor for the UC cooperative extension in Bakersfield, Calif.
Mandarins began to become popular in the early 1990s. They had been in the United States since the early 1900s, but when the citrus crops froze over 20 years ago and then again in 1997, larger buyers of citrus such as chain grocery stores looked to European countries as suppliers and imported mandarins and clementines, Kahn said.
When American farmers realized they could grow these clementines here, they started planting thousands of acres of clementines and mandarins. However, since mandarins have a very short production window, farmers decided to grow another variety that could be sold later in the year. This led to the commercialization of W. Murcotts, an orange-colored fruit with very few seeds.
It was at this time that two companies – Sun Pacific and Paramount Citrus – marketed both clementines and W. Murcotts as Cuties.
Despite their rich flavor, W. Murcotts do have some seeds, a trend that seems to be unfavorable in this new mandarin movement. Seeds in citrus are developed when pollen comes into contact with viable ovules in the flowers. Clementines and W. Murcotts do have viable ovules but they are self-incompatible, which means their own pollen cannot fertilize itself.
“If you plant [clementines or W. Murcotts] on their own on a plot [of land] and exclude pollinators from bringing [outside] pollen, then you get seedless mandarins,“ Kahn said.
However, because the almond season depends on bees to pollinate, beekeepers have been releasing bees. These bees tend to be around the mandarin oranges for longer, causing pollination and seed development.
To combat this, UC Davis Professor Mikeal Roose and his colleague Tim Williams have developed a new mandarin that has been recently planted in huge numbers called Tango.
Tango is the result of a mutation induced by irradiating the bud of a W. Murcott mandarin. They reasoned that they needed a mandarin that was already marketable but needed to be seedless.
In 2006 they released this new variety, deciding it was marketable enough for farmers to grow on a large scale. Kahn is unsure how much acreage has been planted with Tango, but she believes that it will help accelerate the movement toward having more seedless type mandarins in the fruit market.
NICK MARKWITH can be reached at email@example.com.