Botanists think that all modern citrus varieties descended from as few as four ancestral species. The evergreen trees are native to East Asia and Australia, where various forms have been cultivated for more than 4,000 years. Citrus first reached America in the 1500s, but was not grown widely in California until an ample supply of irrigation water was channeled to the Central Valley. In 2005, more than 270,000 acres in California were planted in citrus fruit.
Following is a guide to some of the common citrus varieties you’ll find at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Citrus fruit is most plentiful at the market in the winter months. Click on the links below for more about specific varieties, growers, and recipes.
Oranges (Citrus sinensis): Oranges are thought to be a hybrid of pomelos and mandarins. Most oranges, such as the navel orange (with its distinctive “belly button” on the blossom end), are seasonally available late fall through early spring. Cara Cara is a variety of navel orange with salmon-colored flesh. Blood oranges have a deep red color, which is due to the presence of anthocynanins, plant pigments that have antioxidant properties. The thick-skinned temple orange is a cross between a tangerine and orange (“tangor”). Valencia oranges, the seeded variety that is popular for juicing, are generally available May through September, when other varieties are out of season at the farmers market. Some varieties, like the navel, are generally easy to peel by hand, while others are best cut with a knife. More about oranges >
Mandarins (Citrus reticulata): Certain varieties of mandarins are marketed as tangerines, but many people consider the two names synonymous. Satsuma mandarins have loose, leathery skin, while Clementines have thinner, tighter skin and few seeds. Pages are often called mandarins, but are actually a cross between a tangelo (a mandarin-grapefruit hybrid) and a Clementine. Kishus are tiny, sweet, seedless mandarins. Canned mandarins are usually bathed in lye after they are peeled to remove their membranes—a good reason to buy them fresh at the farmers market. More about mandarins >
Yuzu (Citrus ichangensis × C. reticulata): A cross between a mandarin and a papeda (a subgenus of Citrus) and with a flavor somewhere between a lemon and a grapefruit, this Japanese fruit is the basis of ponzu sauce. Yuzus are about the size of mandarins but with yellowish-green dimpled skin. The fruit is filled with large inedible seeds, so they’re generally only used for their juice and zest. The yuzu’s mild sourness adds a bright addition to a marinade or salad dressing. More about yuzus >
Citrons (Citrus medica): These look like huge, lumpy lemons and have a thick pith, sour pulp, and fragrant skin. Citron peels are often candied, and fingered citrons, also called “Buddha’s Hands,” are sometimes used as an offering on household altars. More about citrons >
Limes (Citrus hystrix, Citrus aurantifolia, Citrus latifolia): Limes have thin green (sometimes yellow) rinds and green flesh. Lime juice and zest are widely used in cooking and beverages. The common “bartender’s lime,” or Bearss lime, may be a hybrid of the Key lime and citron. Sweet limes (aka Palestine limes) resemble lemons and are less acidic. More about limes >
Lemons (Citrus limon): For thousands of years, lemons have been widely used medicinally and as an antiseptic. Lemon juice prevents oxidation of foods that brown after being peeled or sliced, such as apples, avocados, and bananas. A true lemon, Eureka is the most common variety. Meyer lemons are likely a hybrid of lemon and orange. They have a thinner skin and sweet-tart flesh, and are more perishable than other lemon varieties. Variegated lemons have green and yellow stripes, pink flesh, and a tangy flavor. More about lemons >
Grapefruits (Citrus paradise): Large with whitish or pink pulp, grapefruits are the result of a natural cross between sweet orange and pomelo. In America, grapefruits were popularized in the early 20th century as a “breakfast fruit,” even inspiring their own special spoon. Pink varieties, like Red Ruby or Rio Red, contain the pigment lycopene and are especially good for juicing. Besides the sour flavor in all citrus fruits (the result of citric acid), they contain a flavonoid, called naringin, that gives them a bitter flavor. Narigin and other organic compounds in grapefruits can also interact with certain drugs in the human body. Though sometimes called grapefruits, Oro Blancos and Cocktail “grapefruits” are crosses between a pomelo and a mandarin. More about grapefruit >
Pomelos/pummelos (Citrus maxima): With thick, soft rinds and juicy interiors, pomelos are the largest (and perhaps the oldest) of the cultivated citrus fruits. They are not particularly sweet, but don’t have the characteristic bitterness of grapefruits. Some varieties still have green skin when they are ripe. They are easy to peel and are best eaten by hand, rather than with a spoon. More about pomelos >
Kumquats: Not technically considered citrus fruits, kumquats’ genus, Fortunella, is sometimes listed a subgenus of Citrus. Kumquats are often eaten fresh, with their skin on. They have very sour flesh, but their rinds are sweet. More about kumquats >
Citrus fruits are available at Bernard Ranches, Blossom Bluff Orchards, Brokaw Nursery, Everything Under the Sun, Flying Disc Ranch, Frog Hollow Farm, Glashoff Farms, Hamada Farms, Olsen Organic Farm, Orangewood Farm, Rojas Family Farms, Tory Farms, Twin Girls Farm.
Thanks to former culinary intern Julia Allenby for her help with the guide.
CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of farmers markets and educational programs. Learn More »