(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 14, 2009)
I just came in with a basket full of homegrown goodness. Our solitary tangerine tree is loaded with fruit, and I've been taking full advantage of the bountiful harvest.
Picking citrus is a very "December" thing to do in Central Florida. Although navel oranges and grapefruits ripen a bit earlier, tangerines come into their prime at Christmastime. The bright reddish-orange orbs suspended from the limbs look like nature's own holiday ornaments.
Plant a tangerine tree near a dahoon holly and you'll have a ready-made display of seasonal merriment. Like citrus trees, dahoon hollies are also compact evergreens that produce an abundance of colorful fruit in the cooler months. By year's end, Florida's native hollies are dotted with bright red pea-sized berries, a sharp contrast to the tree's waxy green leaves. Although inedible by people, holly berries are favored by a variety of wildlife. All the dahoon hollies on our property are volunteers thanks to the inadvertent planting efforts of our feathered friends.
That's not how our tangerine tree began. We planted it and several other citrus trees shortly after we settled on the property 18 years ago. Although we've done well growing figs, papayas, loquats, pineapples, bananas, star fruit and Surinam cherries, our success rate with citrus has been less than stellar. Thanks to a combination of our inadequate knowledge of citrus-grove care and the occasional freeze, we've managed to kill about a dozen of the orange, lemon and kumquat trees we originally planted. The tangerine tree is an exception. Despite everything we've done wrong, the tangerine tree managed to survive. More than that, it's actually thriving.
I'm glad it did because fresh-picked tangerines are so much fun to eat. The fruit is juicy and sweet, yet tangy, too. Tangerines are easy to peel and just the right size for a satisfying snack. In December, when Ralph and I go for walks, I like to begin with a stroll past the citrus grove. Because they're so small, two or three tangerines can fit in my pockets. As we walk along, I peel off the thin skin, separate the segments and measure the miles by munches. I've found that if I eat slowly, I can finish two tangerines in the time it takes me to do a one-mile loop around the lake. Even though at about 50 calories per tangerine I'm ingesting about the same amount of calories burned off by walking a mile, I'm gaining a nutritional high.
Tangerines pack a powerful punch of Vitamin C, folate and beta-carotene. They also contain some potassium, magnesium and vitamins B1, B2 and B3, and they're high in fiber. Although some people might object to the fibrous white "strings" on tangerines, I've always enjoyed peeling off and eating the rutin-rich pith. I also don't mind the pits. Some tangerines are seedless, but the variety we grow contains a number of small seeds.
Ralph, who has never been fond of seedy fruit, has no patience with tangerines. "What do you do with the seeds?" he'll ask as we walk along.
"I spit some out and swallow others," I respond matter-of-factly. "It's no big deal."
It is to him. His seed-removing skills are pitifully lacking.
It doesn't take many trees to satisfy a family's needs for citrus. The one tree in our yard provides enough fruit to fulfill my citrus cravings, with plenty left over to share. For those without a tree of their own, fruit is available at roadside stands. In this season of giving, what better gift to bestow on those we love than nature's own edible holiday ornaments? It's a sweet, juicy way to welcome the New Year.