Mandarins and Tangerines: Next of Kin, or Distant Relatives?

Posted by Araza Purees on

The bright, refreshing taste of citrus fruits like oranges, lemons and limes are among the most popular for flavored drinks, confections, and foods such as bakery goods.

Identifying the exact varietal of a citrus fruit can be challenging, in part because of “messy genetics,” acknowledges Dr. Melinda Klein, chief research scientist at the Citrus Research Board in Visalia, California. 

That’s where marketing comes in, although sometimes what’s supposed to make it easier for the consumer sometimes just adds to the confusion. 

Mandarins and Tangerines are a perfect example.

A mandarin is a “basic biological species,” explains Dr. Tracy Kahn, Botany & Plant Sciences at University of California Riverside. And, tangerines are a type of mandarin. 

So, while a tangerine is technically a mandarin, not all mandarins are tangerines.

The nickname “tangerine” was given to the fruit exported from the Port of Tangier in Morocco, starting in the 1700s. It was a marketing tactic intended to highlight the tangy, deep colored fruit. 

Taste-wise, mandarins tend to be sweeter while tangerines are generally more tart. But even these characteristics can vary widely depending on where the fruit is grown, the soil characteristics, and differences in climate—much like wine grape varietals differ from one terroir to another.

Mandarins are typically small, round, with an easy-to-peel skin. The tangerine has a more spherical shape, a darker orange color, and a tougher skin. 

Mandarins, including tangerines, continue to gain favor with Americans—so much so that they’re likely to surpass oranges as the number one most consumed fresh citrus fruit in the next few years, according to RaboResearch Food and Agribusiness.

Indeed, domestic production of mandarins can’t keep up with rising demand across the U.S. California grows 95 percent of mandarins consumed in the U.S., but more imports are needed to keep pace with demand, especially because domestic production of mandarins is forecast to fall. 

Specifically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates mandarin production for the 2021/2022 season, which runs from November to October, will decrease 25 percent from the previous growing season. 

That’s a significant decline. 

Meanwhile, North America’s mandarin imports have grown 57 percent over the past five years, with much of the fruit sourced from Chile and Peru.

Field Trip: The Citrus Variety Collection

The Citrus Variety Collection is located on 22.3 acres at the campus of University of California Riverside (UCR) in Southern California. 

It was founded in 1910 by staff of the Citrus Experiment Station and researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to serve as a resource for the citrus producing community. The Citrus Variety Collection provides information, new citrus hybrids, and plant materials, as well as research on citrus pests and diseases.

With approximately 1,038 cultivars and species of citrus and related genera (a taxonomic category that ranks about species and below family), the Citrus Variety Collection is one of the most diverse citrus collections in the world. 

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