But over the past few years, another variety has been gaining favor with the public—tangerines.
Marketing efforts by Cuties and other branded mandarins have helped attract even more consumers, who often find tangerines more flavorful than oranges, especially early in the season.
Florida growers say they’d like to offer a locally grown tangerine that’s tastier than anything they’ve ever produced, and researchers at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences are working to develop new varieties that will appeal to growers and consumers alike.
“We’ve always had a pretty good tangerine industry in Florida, but all of our really popular varieties are seedy,” says Jude Grosser, professor at the University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center Lake Alfred, Fla.
Grosser and his colleagues have taken it upon themselves to develop varieties that are competitive nationally and internationally with the flavor and juice varieties that Florida citrus offers, but that also have the convenience and attractive appearance that some Florida varieties lack.
Deciphering genetic codes
University researchers have made substantial progress unlocking the genetic codes that give Florida tangerines their distinctive flavor and aroma, says Fred Gmitter, citrus foundation professor at Lake Alfred.
In a study reported in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, IFAS researchers, led by Gmitter, showed that tangerine flavor is derived from a complex combination of compounds.
In fact, 49 aroma compounds were discovered in five tangerine hybrids tested.
“We are trying to identify aroma and flavor compounds not only by chemical analysis, but also using trained taste panels so we can know which ones actually contribute in a positive or negative way to flavor,” Gmitter says.
Identifying genetic markers enables breeders to select seedlings that will contain specific flavor attributes early in the development process.
Gmitter’s goal is to develop good-tasting, high-producing tangerine hybrids that are resistant to disease, easy to peel and look attractive on the supermarket shelf.
He’s already had some breakthroughs, like the university’s first mandarin hybrid release—Sugar Belle. It looks a lot like the minneola tangelo, but ripens up to six weeks earlier.
Sugar Belle has better flavor and color than minneolas, he says, and is tolerant of Alternaria, a fungal disease to which minneolas are susceptible. It can produce fruit with or without seeds.
“It receives the highest scores in our consumer taste tests,” he adds.
Another selection is a hybrid that’s one-third mandarin and two-thirds orange.
“It looks like a very well-colored navel orange,” Gmitter says. “It even has a typical navel on most of the fruit.”
The cultivar is red-orange inside and out and has a higher Brix level (14 to 16 degrees) than typical Florida navels (10 to 11 degrees).
In addition, three new fall-ripening mandarins developed by the university should be available within a couple of years, says Jose Chaparro, professor of fruit tree breeding in the horticultural sciences department at Gainesville.
The seedless varieties are in the process of being certified disease free by Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, he says. Budwood should be released by May, and the new varieties will be put into the university’s Fast Track program.
Plants should be available to growers for testing within 18 months after that.
The easy-peel varieties, which will be patented, have zipper skin, firm flesh, a bright orange peel, and they are completely seedless, Chaparro says.
Phillip Rucks, owner of Phillip Rucks Citrus Nursery Inc. in Frostproof, does a lot of test planting for growers and is eager to see the new varieties, one of which, he says, could come on as early as August.
“Nobody has fruit in August,” he says.
He also likes some California easy-peelers that are being tested in Florida, including Yosemite Gold, Shasta, Tahoe and Gold Nugget.
There’s also the just-released Kishu, which is small—the size of a silver dollar—seedless, “sweet as sugar” and a great novelty for kids. It’s available in early fall.
New orange varieties
Work also continues to develop orange varieties, especially early and late navels that will help growers extend their seasons, says Peter Chaires, executive director of the Maitland-based New Varieties Development Corp.
New Varieties currently is testing an early-maturing valencia for processors that may have some fresh applications.
Another new variety, the Valquarius orange developed by Grosser, “will give processors March valencia quality in January,” Chaires says.
Launching new citrus varieties can be a challenging and complex process, he says, and there’s a need to speed up the testing process.
In the past, researchers could test a variety for 10 or 15 years before releasing it to growers.
“We don’t have that kind of time anymore,” Chaires says. “The market is too competitive.”
That’s why the university’s new Fast Track program involves growers themselves in the testing process.
A similar program with the U.S. Department of Agriculture resulted in the recent launch of the U.S. Early Pride, a low-seeded tangerine developed for the early market, Chaires says.
It’s not only the first patented USDA citrus variety, but it’s the first time several states—Florida, California, Arizona and Texas—were involved in such an effort. It should be available at retail in 2014.
There’s more to making a hit with a new variety—even a good-tasting one—than just growing it, Rucks says.
“You can have the best fruit in the world, but if you don’t know how to market it, you’re not going to make a living at it,” he says. “You have to educate the consumer first.”
It’s also important to have a name that sounds appealing, Rucks says, like the honey tangerine, which seems to be making a comeback.
Gmitter says he expects that more than a dozen new mandarins will be released in the next five years, and possibly an equal number of oranges.
“Tangerine growers should welcome the new varieties,” he says. “And depending on how things work out for the juice industry, it’s always possible that some of them may move to fresh.”
When growers have the right cultivars for the marketplace, the fresh side can be lucrative, he says.
Grosser says he hopes to increase the percentage of citrus that goes to the fresh market in order to provide opportunities for growers.
“We’ve got so much stuff in the pipeline,” he says. “We’re only looking at the tip of the iceberg so far.”
Older varieties make comeback
Despite a plethora of new orange and mandarin varieties on the horizon, Phillip Rucks, owner of Phillip Rucks Citrus Nursery Inc. in Frostproof, says improving prices are helping some citrus varieties make a comeback.
“There’s been a resurgence of navels in the past couple of years,” he says.
With prices on varieties like the red navels—or Cara Caras—rising from $5 per box to $14, growers are starting to plant more of them, he says.
The same holds true for minneolas—or Honey Belle tangerines—that can go for $25 per box, which Rucks terms “crazy money.”
Often, growers are likely to go back to older varieties that have a track record and that they have experience with.
“Anything new is going to have a higher risk,” he says.
Rucks also is optimistic about the Tango, which was developed in California but now is available in Florida.
“It fills the gap for the Christmas fruit line we need to have,” he says.
The Tango starts in Florida in November and goes into January, when the California crop comes on.