By December, we generally know what the domestic citrus season will be like. Citrus trees need a period of cool weather at the end of the fruit growth cycle to bring out the color and to balance out the flavor. Citrus trees also need rain at just the right time and in just the right amounts to make the fruit just right. This year the weather has been very good in some areas, not so good in others. For the most part, though, we are off to a good start.
Citrus trees are notoriously temperature sensitive, so orchards are planned in areas in the U.S. that do not historically have prolonged periods below freezing. The Sun Belt for citrus production stretches from Florida to California, with Louisiana, Texas and Arizona all having large-scale commercial production. Each growing region has its own characteristics and special varieties. Here’s how things are shaping up with the main citrus growing states.
Oranges are what the sunshine state is best known for, but Florida also puts out exceptional tangerines for juicing and eating out of hand. The best early variety is the Sunburst Tangerine – it’s loaded with seeds but also with flavor. The juice of the Sunburst is excellent alone or blended with grapefruits or oranges. The amazing thing about the Sunburst (and the Honey variety, which follows later in the season) is the amount of juice they produce relative to their size — two or three small ones will produce a full glass. This year, a lack of rainfall has been a factor in Florida – this tends to impact the size and amount of fruit available, but so far we are able to get what we need for our stores.
Florida also produces outstanding Grapefruit – perhaps the best known is fruit grown in the coastal county of Indian River. Coveted by grapefruit growers for its soil and optimal growing conditions, Indian River is also home to the some of the best eating Honeybell Tangelos, a close cousin to the western Minneola. Due to the lack of rain, Florida grapefruit are sizing small this year. Also, the Japanese covet very large grapefruit and pay top dollar for them, so any large grapefruit this year are heading to the export market.
At the southernmost tip of Texas around towns like McAllen and Einburg, the growing conditions are uniquely ideal for Grapefruit. The Rio Star, with its bright red interior, is an intensely flavorful grapefruit variety that is available from late November well into the new year. It’s not the only variety produced in the area (nor is it the only kind of citrus produced in Texas) but it is widely viewed as the best. For juicing the Rio Star is the perfect grapefruit. South Texas had several hurricane near misses during the growing season but fortunately no damage to orchards occurred.
Because of its size and range of climates, the state of California puts out remarkable citrus fruit for fresh consumption. The most common varieties produced are Satsuma Mandarins, Clementines, Navel Oranges, Lemons and Grapefruit —and in each category there are exotics that are also incredible. The exciting news this year is that 2010 looks to be the year of the organic navel orange as more and more acreage comes on line.
November was cold this year in California and while it didn’t stay cold long enough to damage the trees, the weather really brought out the color and flavor of the early fruit.
The season is just getting started but the fruit has been great. Come by your local produce department and check out what Mother Nature has offered so far.