“Oh my darlin’ Oh my darlin’ Oh my darlin’ Clementine,” Go the words of an old song dedicated to an 1849 gold miner’s daughter.
The song isn’t American, but Mexican, made popular by south-of-the-border immigrants during the Gold Rush. The name is actually French – the feminine form of Clement. But the fruit, a small, orange hybrid whose parents are tangerines and bitter oranges, is Arizona-sweet.
A member of the mandarin orange family – the canned sections that form an essential part of Ambrosia fruit salad – Clementines are a notable citrus crop in Yuma County, which is one of only four citrus-producing states in the nation. In fact, Yuma County is now one of the largest citrus growing regions in the state. Yuma is also known as the salad bowl of Arizona (and in fact the entire nation) during the winter months of November through March!
Legend has it that a French missionary, Clement Rodier, discovered the natural hybrid in West Algeria in the 1900s. Others say Father Rodier – who named the fruit after himself – may have accidentally created the hybrid from Mandarin orange seedlings he had planted. If so, he never made the connection.
Father Rodier did, however, pay particular attention to his discovery, going so far as to promote it in an era when the word “marketing” meant simply selling merchandise over the counter or off the back of a wagon.
During the California Gold Rush (1864), and later, when the Arizona Canal was completed (1889), miners and laborers relied on local citrus to prevent scurvy. Because this crop ripened earlier in Arizona than in California, by 1895, Yuma-area groves comprised more than 1,500 acres!
This production had nowhere to go but up, and by 1970 the area had 80,000 acres in citrus. But over time, and because Clementines never reached the peak of popularity achieved by “real” oranges, the gradual influx of sun lovers and retirees from the Northern tier of states created a housing boom that diminished citrus acreage.
By 2014, citrus production had declined to about 20,000 acres. Today, Clementines – also called Algerian – begin ripening in late November, and are available from December through March. Other varieties include “Fino”, “Clemenules”, “W. Murcott”, and “Tango”, a truly seedless type.
If you live in Yuma County, you can buy your sweet Clementines fresh from the tree.
If Ambrosia salad isn’t quite your cup of tea, visit Fill Your Plate’s individual citrus recipe page for other ideas using oranges. Once you find a combination that makes your mouth water, scroll down the virtual page for area growers and their offerings.
Clementines are typically seedless, with easy-to-remove skins, easily separated sections, and a characteristic flavor. Almost identical to Cuties (another mandarin species), both varieties are favorites of children, not just for their mild sweetness but also for their ease of operation!
What could be sweeter?
- What’s in Season in March? (fillyourplate.org)