I recently met a new cousin who lives on the opposite side of the world in Australia and is just a few days over one year old. He eats solid food like a champ, but is so smitten with mandarins, specifically, that when he sees a tree pregnant with the round, juicy fruits he holds out both hands and grunts ferociously, leaning his whole body weight forward in his mother’s arms. Unfortunately—or fortunately—depending on who you are in this story, they have a citrus tree in their back yard. So this scenario plays out pretty regularly.
When citrus season rolls around each winter I, too, find myself reduced to grunts and leaning forward with both hands to greedily grab at what I see. Gorgeous fruits lay waiting for me on every aisle of the produce section and in every stall of the San Diego farmers market. I should probably try my hand at growing citrus myself, but I would likely be paralyzed with having to choose just one or two. So I resolve my dilemma by regularly recommending my favorite varieties to friends and I promise sincerely to stop by and see how things are going—hands outstretched.
Long ago, I more or less stopped categorizing citrus in any official or botanical way; it just got too difficult. For example, ‘Rangpur’, commonly called Rangpur lime, looks like a small orange, tastes like a lime, and is said to be a cross between a mandarin and a lemon. What to do? “All citrus available today is a result of breeding or mutations from three original species: the citron, the pummelo, and the mandarin,” says David Karp, an Associate in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences at University of California, Riverside.
Since citron (Citrus medica) and pummelo (C. maxima) aren’t particularly common, I generally go with flavor. Here is a loose categorization of a few of my absolute favorites. All are delicious, but I have a preference for unique specimens where possible. If you are going to go to the effort of growing or obtaining these choice citrus, you might as well have a showstopper on your table.
‘Seedless Kishu’ and Tahoe Gold™ are two of my favorite mandarin (C. reticulata) varieties. ‘Kishu’ ripens early in the season and is about as petite as they come with a diameter around the size of a half dollar. It is delightfully sweet, easy to peel, and generally seedless.
In contrast, Tahoe Gold™ ripens later in the season and has what I consider to be the quintessential flavor in a mandarin with a perfect balance of acidity and sweetness. These two would make a fabulous pair in a home garden.
The world of limes (C. aurantiifolia) offers some of the most unique offerings in the citrus lineup—some of which aren’t even true limes. Rangpur (C. ×limonia) looks exactly like a tangerine with orange skin and deep orange flesh, but one bite and your puckering lips reveal the secret—a unique little citrus with a lemon-lime flavor.
Australian finger lime (C. australasica, syn. Microcitrus australasica) is one of the recent darlings of the culinary world. They are about the size and shape of a pinky finger and when cut and squeezed reveal tiny, firm bubbles of tart lime juice. They are most commonly green in the United States but are also available in gorgeous pinks and reds.
Speaking of pink and red, blood oranges (C. sinensis) have deep, beautiful, ruby flesh and a slightly more complicated, sweet flavor than the typical orange. There are three common varieties: ‘Tarocco’ produces the largest fruits; ‘Sanguinelli’ (or ‘Sanguinello’) has a unique flavor; and ‘Moro’ has the deepest red flesh and juice.
Oddly enough, since it tastes exactly like the common ‘Eureka’ lemon (C. ×limon), one of my absolute favorite citrus is ‘Variegated Pink’, a sport of ‘Eureka’. When sliced, the exotic green and yellow tiger-striped skin reveals pale pink flesh. This is a fruit with some sass. The child in me can’t stop squealing about this one, while my adult side enjoys putting up lemon honey concentrate, an old-fashioned winter elixir that can be used for just about anything throughout the winter season, from curing colds to party refreshments.