Mandarin oranges have a few different names. They are the Puff Daddy of citrus fruit. They are sometimes called tangerines, satsumas, or even clementines. Plus oranges, grapefruits, and lemons are actually hybrids of this little cutie. See what I did there? You’ll learn what that’s all about and so much more on the history of mandarins!
Origin of Mandarins
Studies believe that mandarin oranges have existed in China and other parts of East and Southeast Asia for more than 1,000,000 years and were domesticated twice around the foothills of China’s Nanling Mountain region, where wild mandarins can still be found today. We may have cultivated mandarins some 80,000 years ago, but the earliest hard evidence dates back about 4,000 years. There’s a recording of mandarins being gifted to Emperor Yu the Great around 2200 BC.
Oranges, grapefruits, lemons, even Meyer lemons, and bergamots are all related to wild mandarins, as are many of today’s most commercially important citrus fruits. Tangerines are also, kinda. Some are distinct fruits grown around Tangiers in Morocco, but in the U.S. they are hybrids of mandarins and pomelos.
Around the World
Mandarin oranges first reached the West around 1805 when diplomatic missions to China brought trees back to England. From there, they were propagated and made their way to Italy for cultivation. Around 1840, Italian immigrants brought mandarins to the port of New Orleans. Mandarins then made their way to America’s great citrus regions, California and Florida. Like lemons, Florida’s mandarins were likely affected by the states great freeze, making the Golden state the primary grower.
Gifting mandarins isn’t just for Chinese royalty. In Canada, they’re a Christmas tradition. Japanese immigrants popularized the fruit in the Great White North around the late 1800s. It’s Japanese custom to give mandarins around the New Year as a symbol of good fortune. Well that tradition spread among the non-Japanese population and across the country.
Why They Are Called mandarins
How exactly mandarin oranges got their name is a little unclear. It’s just that these delicious little fruits have a very long history. So what influenced what is not always traceable, but here is what we know. Kinda.
The word dates back to the 1580s and may have been inspired by orange robes worn by Chinese court officials. Or the Portuguese word mandarim. Yes, with an M. China-Portugal relations date all the way back to the 1500s, during the Ming dynasty. It is kinda hard to say. But also, it could be related to the Dutch word mandorijn. This is beginning to feel a lot like that Spider-Man meme where everybody is pointing to everybody, right?
See, the Portuguese worked closely with the Malay, who referred to bureaucrats of the Chinese court as menteri. The Malay got that word from the Sanskrit word mantri. The connection between the Sanskrit word mantri to the Malay word menteri to the Portuguese word mandarim seems fairly possible.
But, yes, it get’s trickier. Mandarin is also the dominant Chinese language, called so because it was the official court language.
Remember that Dutch part? Well, the name mandarin orange is also borrowed from the Swedish mandarin apelsin (Oh and apelsin from German apfelsine, meaning Chinese apple), first attested in the 18th century. The Imperial Chinese term mandarine was first used by the French for this fruit. Why? It is not clear.
Needless to say, how mandarin oranges got their common name is a little fuzzy. And if I am being honest, the only time I like citrus to make things a little fuzzy is when it involves tequila, but here we are.
Their biological classification is a lot less complicated. Like other citrus fruit, mandarins are technically a berry. Yes, a berry. Other berries include avocados, bananas, cucumbers, and grapes. Crazy, right?
Mandarins belong to the species Citrus reticulata. This is a broad group that includes many varieties and commercial hybrids. Citrus taxonomy isn’t always very well defined as there is so much hybridization. That said, mandarins, at least, more closely resemble their natural ancestor than many hybrid citruses.
However, this group includes too many varieties and commercial hybrids to even name here. But mandarins are one of the original citrus species that evolved in the wild. In fact, the ancestor of modern mandarins grew around China and other parts of East and Southeast Asia, where wild trees can still be found today.
Many varieties of wild mandarin still exist in the Nanling mountains. Some researchers have ascribed different species for these fruits, but they are at least very closely related to Citrus reticulada.
Since mandarins are very widely cultivated there are dozens of varieties. Many are regional, with nations like China, Japan, the Philippines, and the USA having their own specific varieties. Here is where the classifications get a little fuzzy.
Some classification systems recognize tangerines as its own species, and some see them as a variety of mandarin. Tangerines came to be recognized as a distinct fruit when grown around Tangiers in Morocco. In fact, the word tangerine was originally an adjective meaning from Tangier.
In the U.S., tangerines are a hybrid of mandarins and pomelos but grouped with mandarins, as far as agriculture data goes. Satsumas are also considered mandarins, that was initially developed in Japan.
- Gold Nugget
- W. Murcott
Citrus fruit, as we know it, is the result of blending and mixing ancestral species into the delicious things we eat today. Here are some of the fruits directly related to wild mandarin oranges.
- Sweet Oranges
- Sour Oranges
- Meyer Lemons
- Tahitian Limes
Mandarin Orange Nutrition
As most citrus fruit, mandarin oranges contain a great deal of vitamin C. They have 26.7mg per 100g of fruit. This is around half that of an orange, which has 59.1mg/100g. Mandarins also have 2 grams of fiber per 100g.
How to Eat Mandarins
They look like small oranges that got squished a la Kids in the Hall. An average mandarin weighs a bit more than half of an average orange. They are sweeter than oranges and almost candylike, with a thinner skin that is much easier to peel. Speaking of thinned-skinned orange things, Trump lost the election.
Mandarins are often eaten raw as a table fruit but are commonly found in fruit cups. They are also available as a juice — typically as tangerine juice.
Fighting Food Waste
America wastes a lot of food. Over 40% of what we produce in this country ends up wasted, and that waste accounts for 8% of greenhouse gases globally. You can help fight food waste by eating root to leaf. Mandarin orange skins can be candied and even dipped in chocolate. You can also dry them for homemade spice blends and teas.
The world produces over 30 million tons of mandarins a year. Most come from China, Europe, Turkey, Japan, and the United States. They are the second most-grown citrus in the world! Oranges hold first place.
Most U.S. grown mandarins hail from California, with about 67,000 acres, and some from Florida, with about 8,000 acres. How does that compare to other citrus? California has 51,000 acres of lemon groves, 600 acres of limes, about 9,000 grapefruit acres, and 140,000 acres dedicated to navel and valencia oranges.
Mostly, it is the San Joaquin Valley where 92% of mandarins are grown. Tulare County is the largest growing region, which accounts for 40% of fresh mandarins, followed by Kern, Fresno, Madera, Riverside, and more.
We grow a lot of food here in California. All over California. Literally over 50% of the nation’s produce!
Orchards should be level with soil 36-48 inches deep.
Many orchards will have established wells, but water can also be pumped in. Irrigation is usually provided via micro-sprinklers. In the first couple of years, the orchard will need 6 acre-inches of water per year, increasing up to 24 acre-inches at maturity in year 7. Rainfall is also factored in when it comes to irrigating.
Planting mandarin oranges begins with saplings. It depends on the variety, but an acre can typically hold somewhere between 100 and 300 trees. And usually, around 2% of the trees do not survive the first year and will need to be replanted.
The trees need to have “suckers” removed as they grow to ensure that fruit-bearing branches are prioritized. This will need to happen at least for the first three years. Starting the fourth year, only light pruning is needed to maintain an optimal growth pattern.
Citruses prefer a Mediterranean-style climate. This is why mandarins — and other citrus fruit — do so well in California, especially those warmer valley regions.
Things can vary a bit depending on the variety and region, but the lifecycle of mandarin oranges is as follows. Buds begin to develop on the trees around the same time as harvest. This is why growing and harvesting the food we eat requires skilled labor. If the buds are damaged during harvest, it affects next year’s crop.
The buds continue to grow into what will eventually become flowers during a period of dormancy for the tree; this is the dead of winter. Come spring, the flowers begin to bloom. This lasts for several weeks.
Next is the fruit set. This is where flowers that are fertilized begin to develop into fruit. Mandarin trees are typically self-fertile and often covered with a special netting to prevent pollination. This also keeps them seedless. It takes all of summer and some of fall, depending on the variety, for fruit to fully develop. Then, as the fruit ripens, harvest begins.
Harvest typically starts around October but can continue through May. It takes about 3 years before fruit from new trees is even marketable. Orchards are fully mature by year 7. A single tree can produce up to 200 pounds of fruit every year.
California Growing Season
Because California grows so many varieties of citrus throughout multiple growing regions within the state, we have an extended harvest. This is a huge deal that allows for fresh produce throughout the year. We are basically a vending machine for fresh citrus!
Mandarin oranges are harvested when ripe and do not ripen after harvest. This means they are non-climacteric. Climacteric fruits have the ability to ripen after being picked. Examples of climacteric fruits include apples, pears, tomatoes, avocados, and bananas to name a few. Other non climacteric fruits are any citrus, raspberries, strawberries, grapes, and pomegranates.
So, growers must test mandarins for optimal sugar and acid levels before picking them. And they can’t just be pulled from the tree, as that would remove the top of the peel. Again, skilled fucking labor.
The variety and region determine when harvest occurs. For example, harvest in the San Joaquin Valley generally occurs from late January to April. But in California, it can begin as early as October. Clementines and satsumas begin to ripen come November, whereas Pixie and Gold Nuggets are still ripening come May.
And that’s how mandarin oranges got from China to California to you.
Sources: Mandarin Orange Wikipedia Page, Mandarin Genomic Study, Mandarins USDA Nutrition, Carrots USDA Nutrition, Oranges USDA Nutrition, Citrus INdustry Report for California 2022, USDA Citrus Report 2023, California Agnet Citrus Report 2022, UC Davis MAndarin Orchard Cost Study, The Produce Nerd Mandarin Processing report, USDA Citrus Report 2020, USDA CAlifornia Citrus Acreage Report 2020, EatLikeNoOne Blog