Urban Harvest: Some Very Special Mandarins
By Dr. Bob Randall


Except for our coldest areas--those north of Harris County or both west of Harris and north of I-10--hundreds of citrus tree varieties are potentially great additions to our landscapes. They will provide beautiful evergreens that shade house walls in summer, help shut out the roadway’s din, while dramatically improving breakfast, lunch, dinner or garden breaks. They are carefree, very productive, reliable, long-lived and attract butterflies and nesting birds. I eat fresh yard citrus from September to June. Here I want to talk about a few of my favorites: satsumas, pong koas, and calamondins.

Satsumas are a hardy type of mandarin, which is to say they are tangerines. They all have an easily peeled slip skin, a few seeds, and depending on their ripeness, are either tart-sweet or fully sweet. Mandarins are some of the hardiest members of the Citrus genus and need a winter cooling period. However, if you don’t pick them at this stage, they will quickly become bland and then mushy, so it is best to refrigerate as much as you can and donate, give away or sell the rest. Different varieties ripen from August (with orange green skins) to December (with orange), so with good selection and refrigeration, you can eat them for 6 months.

Most mature satsumas will produce 100-300 fruit per tree, so there is a lot to eat and share. One wonderful way to consume a lot of satsumas is to juice them with a cheap electric citrus juicer. The result is one of life’s great joys and health foods—deep orange, delicious pulpy tangerine juice that makes the store stuff seem to be fake.

The pong koa is a different type of mandarin. Like the satsuma, it is easily peeled, but the flesh is very firm and crisp. The satsuma is a short, squat tree up to 12 ft. tall and wide, while pong koas are tall skinny trees up to 15 ft. with just 6 ft. diameters. At its worst, perhaps 25 percent of the pong koa’s fruit are so firm that they lack juice and must be composted. When you couple this with the fact that they bear heavily only in alternate years, you can see why they are unknown in the market trade. However, the rest of the fruit have a heavenly aroma and flavor making them highly addictive. At their best, they are some of the best fruit I have ever tasted. In alternate years, there is a large supply that beats any satsuma for fresh eating. I always reach for them first.

The calamondin is a different type of mandarin. The fruit is about the size of a pecan and borne in great abundance every year, nearly year round, on an 18 ft. tree perhaps 6 ft. in diameter. The skins are brilliant orange, and inside there is a deep orange flesh deliciously sour. The aroma of the flesh is wonderful.

Lemons and limes are much better known in Texas for sour flavoring in ice tea, margaritas, pies, and much more. But in East Asia and much of the tropics, the calamondin is king, showing up in Philippine calamansi “lemonade” and as limun flavoring in Brazilian drinks. They are also common dooryard fruits in south Florida.

I grow Meyer lemons, and they are rightly thought to be the gourmet world’s best lemon. But frankly, when it comes to sour flavoring, I much prefer calamondins. First, they are very juicy and soft so they can very easily be squeezed on to or into something with two fingers. What I do typically is cut 1-2 calamondins in half or quarters, and then I squeeze the juice into the drink and usually toss the fruit in too. At certain times in the year, there are far more than we can eat. Then we just put a few dozen in a freezer bag. Come summer, when the calamondin crop is sparse, out of the bag comes the little frozen fruit. They are then sliced in halves or quarters and tossed in the drink as ice cubes.

It is hard to convey even in these few words the richness to life some well-chosen citrus can bring. You can purchase many varieties of citrus and more at the upcoming Urban Harvest Fruit Tree Sale, January 14th at University of Houston, Robertson Stadium. More details at Urban Harvest Fruit Tree Sale.

Bob Randall, Ph.D. is Executive Director of Urban Harvest and is author of Year Round Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers for Metro-Houston. Contact him at BobInTheGarden@urbanharvest.org. Learn about gardening classes, community and school gardens, farmers’ markets and more at www.urbanharvest.org.