Citrus fruits

Never mind carols in the snow, decorated trees and Canadian Tire commercials, for me the real proof Christmas is just around the corner is the appearance of boxes of mandarin oranges.

Equating citrus fruit with anything wintry, though, is really rather odd, because citrus fruits are notoriously unsuited for cold climates.

Citrus fruits come from plants belonging to the genus “Citrus” and the closely related genus “Fortunella,” both of the family “Rutaceae.” Citrus plants are spiny evergreen shrubs or trees bearing white or purplish flowers, and the fruits, which are technically berries, have tough, leathery skins and insides divided into distinct sections (called “locules”) by parchmentlike partitions.

Citrus plants are native to southeast Asia and the East Indies, where they’ve been cultivated for millennia. They were introduced into Europe around the 12th century by the Arabs, and today are grown in tropical and subtropical areas around the world. Christopher Columbus brought the first citrus seeds to the new world (Haiti) in 1493.

There are several commercially important citrus species. Heading the list is the sweet orange, properly called “Citrus sinensis.” Navel oranges are a good example. There’s also a sour orange, widely used in making marmalade (and may I say one of the great disappointments of my life was tasting orange marmalade, which always sounded so good, for the first time–and hating it). Then there’s everybody’s Christmas favorite, the mandarin orange, or tangerine. This has a smaller fruit and a looser peel–which makes it great for snacking. (Like potato chips, it’s hard to eat just one.)

Other important citrus species include the lemon, the lime, the citron, pomelos (similar to grapefruit), and grapefruit themselves (probably actually a hybrid of the pomelo). Kumquats are also a form of citrus, and there’s also an inedible orange, the trifoliate orange, used to provide root stock for edible oranges.

All of these fruits have their uses. Lemon juice is used as a drink, a flavoring, and a constituent of drinks, salad dressings and fish dressings. Lemon pulp is used in making concentrated lemon juice, and lemon peel contains oil of lemon, used in perfumes and to make lemon flavoring.

Limes are grown for their juice, while citron is grown for its rind, which is preserved or candied and also yields oil of citron, used by perfumers. Pomelos, which can weigh up to six kilograms, are often used for preserves. Grapefruit are used for juice and eaten for breakfast.

There are also many citrus hybrids, including tangelos (tangerine and grapefruit), citranges (trifoliate orange and sweet orange), tangors (tangerine and sweet orange), limequats (lime and kumquats) and citrangequats (citranges and kumquats).

If you believe that vitamin C helps prevent colds, then you should eat lots of citrus, because a single orange contains 120 percent of the daily recommended intake of vitamin C. If, like me, you believe vitamin C helps prevent colds about as well as hanging a clove of garlic around your neck wards off vampires, you should still eat lots of citrus, because it also contains potassium, calcium, folate (important during pregnancy), thiamin, niacin, vitamin B6, phosphorus, magnesium and copper. Oranges and grapefruit are also particularly high in Vitamin A. As well, the high fiber and water content of citrus fruits can ward off hunger and prevent overeating–which is why grapefruit figures so prominently in diets.

Whether vitamin C prevents colds or not, it certainly prevents scurvy (characterized by bleeding gums, rough skin, poor muscle tension and slow-healing wounds). In the 1750s, British physician James Lind found that sailors on long voyages who ate citrus fruits avoided scurvy–the first proven link between a single nutrient and disease. British sailors began sucking on limes on long sea journeys, which is why they were nicknamed “Limeys.”

Brazil is the largest citrus producer in the world; the U.S. is second. Subtropical regions are best for citrus; too far north and the fruit faces killing frosts, too far south and there’s not enough seasonal change to stimulate the plants to maximum production. Growing citrus fruit is a major undertaking anywhere, involving irrigation, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and fertilizer. Sometimes orchards even have to be heated at night to lessen frost damage.

But it’s all worth it when the we peel an orange, or slice open a fat grapefruit, in the dead of winter. Maybe that’s really why citrus seems to fit so well with Christmas. Christmas is, after all, a festival of light…and biting into a citrus fruit is like biting into a big juicy piece of warm southern sunshine.


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