I’m fortunate. I spent years living in zone 3, but today when I look out my window I see golden balls hanging from a green tree in my small yard. No, I haven’t been putting up Christmas decorations – it’s an orange tree. In my city they are everywhere – sometimes oranges, sometimes mandarins. Lemons trees are common too, and in some yards I see the giant golden orbs of grapefruits. They look like nature’s being doing her own decorating and seeing them makes me realize how incredibly appropriate they are for holidays – and how growing a Citrus Tree, wherever you live, gives you an instant Christmas tree.
A memory comes to me from my childhood. At the bottom of my Christmas stocking there was always an orange filling the toe – clever trick by parents to make the stocking heavier and more promising, but also a reminder for them of the deprivations of a war in their recent memory. Right now, we are in a war of a different kind, but the golden balls of citrus can bring the same hope and promise. What an amazing gift for the holidays one of these ‘golden apples’ makes any year, but especially this year.
Citrus are the Perfect Holiday Tree
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about a Citrus Tree, especially to northern gardeners, is how the fruit ripens over the winter months. After blooming in spring – the flowers are deliciously fragrant with luxury orange blossom perfume – these trees spend the summer building their fruits, which remain green and inconspicuous. Then, as the weather cools, they switch to ripening. Gradually, like lights coming on, first one, then a few, and finally an abundance of green balls turns to yellow and orange – it’s an incredibly transformation.
How Can I Grow a Citrus Tree?
If you live in zone 9 or warmer – or even in zone 8 if you plant a Satsuma tree – you can of course have your golden tree out in the yard. In colder zones you can grow it in a pot kept outside in the sun for much of the year, and kept in a frost-free, well-lit space (like a porch) for the coldest months. We have an earlier blog on doing just that, and another one here, as well as information on the simple but important job of pollinating your citrus tree in a pot.
What are the Best Citrus Choices?
Trees for pots are best if they are naturally smaller, so oranges are generally not so suitable unless you have room indoors for a pretty large tree. They are great for planting outdoors though, in zones 9 and 10. The most popular for home growing is the Navel Orange, which has the advantages of easy-peeling and no seeds – as well as being sweet and juicy. For something special, plant a blood orange. The best, with dark-red flesh when ripe, is the Moro Blood Orange. The unique tang of blood oranges is great in juice or for baking – unbeatable!
A great way to start the day with that citrus hit is with grapefruit – incredibly popular with many people. This is another tree best outdoors, and for the best of the pink or red grapefruits, go for the Rio Red Grapefruit. It’s more cold-resistant than many, with a bumper crop of medium-sized fruits perfect for breakfast. They store well on the tree, and a tree will give you months of home-grown fruit.
Lemons and satsumas are top of the list for planting in pots, because they are smaller trees and take well to growing in pots with an indoor/outdoor routine. Here a rundown of some of the best – lots to choose from.
Developed and grown for centuries in China, before being brought here early in the 20th century by one of America’s intrepid plant collectors, Frank Meyer, this is the potted citrus tree for everyone. Compact and bushy, the Meyer Lemon is easy to grow and adapts well to a pot. Not only that, the lemons are renowned for their unique flavor and slightly sweeter juice. As a gift for the holidays, it’s a winner.
The original mandarin was a distinct wild species of citrus, and a parent of oranges, which are hybrid trees. Today the wild mandarin itself isn’t grown, and the name has become a ‘catch-all’ for several groups of hybrid citrus – all of which are hugely popular over the Holiday season. They almost all make great potted trees because they are naturally smaller both as a tree and as a fruit. That means you can grow a good crop from a tree in a pot. They are also the most cold-hardy, and that makes them easier to grow in the garden across more of the country than any other type of citrus.
This type of mandarin is incredibly popular because it doesn’t have seeds, and the easy-peel skin is child’s play to remove. They are great for eating during the holidays and the tree itself is gorgeous when covered with its bright-orange fruits. Outdoors in zone 8 plant the Owari Satsuma, a classic variety that will even survive temperatures down to 15 degrees. It ripens early, usually by November, so imagine serving your own fruit for Thanksgiving. Even tougher is the newer variety called the Miho Satsuma, which will take 10 degrees, at least for a few hours overnight. The fruit are exceptionally large, and also ready for Thanksgiving. Another great new variety is the Bumper™ Satsuma, with super-easy peeling and delicious tangy flesh.
Oh, my darlin’ is just exactly how you will feel eating your own clementine at Christmas. Similar to Satsuma but ripening a bit later and in tie for Christmas, it is a hybrid between a mandarin and an orange found in an orphanage in Algeria. A clementine is perfect for a pot or out in the garden, and it’s almost as cold-resistant as a Satsuma.
Created in Florida, and uniquely American, the type of mandarin called a tangerine is another hybrid variation. It is easy-peel, with larger fruits, and almost no seeds. Like all the mandarins it is ripe over the holidays and through into the New Year as well, so you will be in for months of golden goodness when you grow a Sunburst Tangerine, one of the most popular varieties around.
The Perfect Holiday Tree
Get your gift-shopping done and know that your gifts will be truly appreciated. Send your family and friends a citrus tree – even more important if you can’t be there yourself this year – or get yourself one, because you deserve a gift too, at this time of giving.