Orchard Trees of Rancho Los Cerritos: Lemon, Lime & Mandarin
In 1931, Llewellyn and Avis Bixby commissioned Ralph D Cornell to design an estate garden at the family’s old rancho property in Long Beach, California. The finished design included two orchards with additional fruit trees throughout the site. Of the six citrus trees found in the primary orchard at Rancho Los Cerritos, three were oranges (see Pacific Horticulture January ’08). The others were individual species: Citrus limon, C. aurantifolia, and C. reticulata. The stories of these other citrus, based upon the research done in preparation for the orchard restoration in 2001, are presented here.
Lemons (Citrus limon) traveled with oranges around the world and wound up in California at the same time and in all the same places. The sweet lemon (C. limetta) was in the San Gabriel Mission orchard by 1822, and both sweet and sour were available locally. Lemons were planted in the original rancho garden created by John Temple in the 1840s, according to Anne Bixby Chamberlin; she wrote that they had been planted at pathway intersections, much like the Italian cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens). None of the early lemon trees remained when landscape architect Ralph D Cornell inventoried the garden in 1931. In his design, he planted a single ‘Eureka’ lemon (C. limon ‘Eureka’) in the Bixby’s primary orchard.
One source suggests that the seeds for the ‘Eureka’ lemon came from either Central America or Hawaii via a neighbor of William Wolfskill, who was famous for his orchards in Los Angeles. Others say the seeds came from Sicily, from a lemon called ‘Lunario’. Regardless, they were planted next to one of Wolfskill’s orchards, possibly as early as 1858; Wolfskill purchased that neighbor’s land while the trees were quite young, as he expanded his own orchards. In time, Wolfskill sold the property to the CR Workman family.
Thomas Garey (see Mediterranean sweet orange, Pacific Horticulture, January ’09) had observed those lemon trees for some time. When Workman exhibited the lemon at the California Fruit Growers Convention in 1885, Garey became more involved; he named and introduced the lemon as ‘Garey’s Eureka’. This selection was remarkable for its nearly thornless branches, which made harvesting easier. The fruit had a smoother peel, was sweeter but still acidic, and was juicy with few, if any, seeds. It would bear all year, with the greatest crop from late winter through early summer. Unsuited for growing in Florida, ‘Garey’s Eureka’ became a leading agricultural crop in California as well as in Israel, Australia, and New Zealand. Today, the Rancho’s ‘Eureka’ is still going strong from the 1931 planting.
Because the high acid content irritates some pallets, growers made an effort to develop an acid-free lemon. They were successful in the endeavor but astonished with the results: the acid-free lemon was tasteless. They discovered that the marvelous lemon flavor was linked within the acid itself.
Native to Southeast Asia, limes (Citrus aurantiifolia) are the smallest of the true citrus and are the most frost sensitive, faring best in tropical climates. There are two types of limes. The West Indian, Mexican, or Key lime requires heat and humidity to be successful; Florida succeeded with them (until hurricane Andrew devastated the orchards). The Tahiti or Persian lime has a lower heat requirement and will grow where lemons thrive. Limes had a slow start in California, although they were introduced along with oranges and lemons. California has never successfully competed with more tropical climates for a share in the world lime market.
Limes imported from Tahiti to San Francisco yielded seeds that were planted around 1850 in a private garden. JT Bearss of Porterville named and introduced the fruit in 1895 as the ‘Bearss’ lime. This tree is considered to be of hybrid origin, a cross perhaps between a common lime and the citron (Citrus medica). It grows taller than the typical Tahiti lime and features irregular thorns and larger, almost seedless fruit in mid-winter. The rind is smooth and thin, and thus bruises easily; this hampers shipping, so the fruit found in grocery stores is picked, shipped (and used) green. Cornell included one ‘Bearss’ lime in the Bixby’s orchard. The tree suffered a mishap with a backhoe during a construction project and has been declining since 2001; it awaits replacement.
When limes are ripe, they are a lemon yellow color. However, the measure of acid drops as the sugars increase, so the flavor changes. We have all been trained to accept limes as acidic, green, and unripe!
Tangerines (Citrus reticutata) are more appropriately called mandarins, from the bright orange robes that were typically worn by the public officials (mandarins) in the ancient Chinese Court. At that time, only the privileged class was allowed to eat the fruit of this tree, which is one of the three primordial citrus species native to Southeast Asia. The parent, however, would travel a different path around the world than its many offspring.
Two selections of mandarins were imported to England from Canton in 1805. From there, they became well established in the Mediterranean Basin. The Italian Consul brought the willow-leaf mandarin to New Orleans around 1840. From Louisiana, mandarins were brought to Florida and soon after to California. Dr Magee, of Riverside, California, imported six ‘King Mandarin’ from Saigon in 1882, but the Gulf States had already established an edge over California in commercial production. Eventually, Mexico out-produced them all.
Algerian tangerines (Citrus ‘Clementine’) may have originated when a French missionary, Pierre Clement, inadvertently crossed a mandarin and an orange in Algeria in 1902. From Clement, we get ‘Clementine’. Shipped out of Tangiers in Morocco, the term “tangerine” got applied to the mandarin. This mandarin, with its multiple monikers, was introduced into Florida by the US Department of Agriculture in 1909. Five years later, mandarins arrived in California.
This medium-sized tree produces a juicy, flavorful, almost seedless fruit with a deep orange-red peel that is thick and loose. As a bonus, it has a long season that can extend into summer. All of this makes it one of the most popular citrus in the world—popular enough that Cornell included one Algerian tangerine in the Bixby orchard. Because this is a mixed orchard and pollen arrives from numerous different citrus, the rancho’s fruits contain seeds. To achieve a seedless fruit, the mandarins must be exclusively pollinated by one another.
These three citrus added depth and variety to the flavors available to the Bixby family for much of the year, and all just a short stroll from their kitchen.