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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

What is a clementine anyway?

Winter is the season for citrus. One of my favorites is the clementine—and my 19 month old son is developing a taste for them as well. At first, he would only throw them, referring to them as "balls". Once he realized they are for eating, he's been devouring them while making the sign for and saying "more". They are available for a relatively short time each year, so we are thoroughly enjoying them while they last.

What exactly is a clementine? This question has sparked a lot of debate in our office.

I always thought clementines were the same as mandarin oranges. Not quite. Any inquiry into the heritage of citrus fruits turns up a family tree originating in South- and Indo-China that is quite complicated. Clementines are part of a group known as mandarins, but they are not the same canned fruits so often used in salads and desserts. Most canned mandarins are technically Satsumas, originally from Japan. Another term for mandarins is tangerines.

There are multiple stories on record as to the origin of the fruit known as the Clementine. One popular explanation credits a French missionary in Algiers named Father Clement Rodier for developing the clementine in 1902 from a cross between a tangerine and the Seville, or bitter, orange. But some accounts say that he discovered the Clementine purely by chance as a rogue tree in his garden. Still others credit development of the Clementine to the Chinese, generations earlier.

The resulting fruit became very popular because not only were they very easy to peel, and delectably sweet, they were also seedless.

Historically, Spain and Morocco have been the major producers of Clementines, because they have the hot and arid environment clementine trees require. Management of Clementine orchards is quite intense—most of the work is still done by hand. Both countries have laws designed to maintain high quality in their Clementine harvests.

The laws revolve around placement of viable pollen sources for Clementines. Clementines have no seeds because they cannot self-pollinate, and some other citrus pollens cannot pollinate their flowers either. However there are many citrus pollens that will pollinate and produce seed in Clementine fruit, and these laws limit where or if they can be planted where Clementines are grown.

This cross-pollination issue is one factor limiting Clementine production in the U.S., specifically California. Though citrus is also grown in the hot climate of Texas and Florida, both are far too humid for Clementine production. California has a great climate, but there are many other citrus varieties grown there that may contaminate the Clementines and result in a very seedy, low-quality fruit. Researchers are investigating ways to avoid this problem so that the U.S. can produce more of this highly desirable citrus fruit.

Spanish Clementines used to be found in nearly every grocery store each holiday season. However, everything in our stores is now sourced from California. Why the change? Back in 2001, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors found live larvae of the Mediterranean fruit fly, or medfly, present in shipments of Spanish Clementines in Louisiana and North Carolina. In response, the USDA "suspended indefinitely" the entry of Clementines from Spain. The medfly is a threat to at least 250 different fruits and vegetables, and although it can only survive in states with a warm enough climate, these are also the Western and Southern states that contain much of our fruit and vegetable production.

Two commonly available brand of California grown Clementines are the "Cutie" and "Halo" Clementines. These particular brands seem to be everywhere! I assumed they were Clementines just like the ones that were imported from Spain. Not quite. They are actually two different fruits, both sold under their respective brand names.

According to the official "Cuties" website ( and the official "Halo" website ( ), both brands are Clementine mandarins from November through January, and Murcott mandarins February through April. The addition of the Murcott mandarins extends the season of these very popular citrus fruits, as the Murcotts are nearly identical to the Clementines available earlier in the season.

Whatever the brand or their true identity, Clementines are a treat to be savored while they last. I'm sure the Nelson household will enjoy many more pounds of these sweet treats before they disappear from the produce section until next fall.


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