People who love oranges but don’t live in a warm enough region to have their own grove often opt to grow tangerines. The question is, when are tangerines ready to pick? Read on to find out when to harvest tangerines and other information regarding tangerine harvest time.
Tangerines, also called mandarin oranges, are more cold hardy than oranges and can be grown in USDA zones 8-11. They require full sun, consistent irrigation, and, like other citrus, well-draining soil. They make excellent container citrus, as there are several dwarf varieties available. Most varieties are self-fertile and are well suited for those lacking in garden space.
So when can you begin harvesting tangerines? It takes about 3 years for a tangerine to begin producing a crop.
Tangerines ripen earlier than other citrus, so they can escape damage from freezes that will harm midseason varieties such as grapefruit and sweet oranges. Most varieties will be ready for picking during the winter and early spring, although the exact tangerine harvest time depends on the cultivar and region.
So the answer to “When are tangerines ready to be picked?” varies greatly depending upon where the fruit is being grown and what cultivar is being grown. For instance, the traditional Christmas tangerine, Dancy, ripens from fall into winter. Algerian tangerines are usually seedless and also ripen during winter months.
Fremont is a rich, sweet tangerine that ripens from fall into winter. Honey or Murcott tangerines are very small and seedy but with a sweet, juicy flavor, and they are ready to pick from winter into early spring. Encore is a seedy citrus fruit with a sweet-tart flavor and is the last of the tangerines to ripen, usually in spring. Kara cultivars bear sweet-tart, large fruit that ripens in spring as well.
Kinnow has aromatic, seedy fruit that is a bit harder than other varieties to peel. This cultivar does best in hot regions and ripens from winter to early spring. Mediterranean or Willow Leaf cultivars have a yellow/orange rind and flesh with few seeds that ripen in the spring.
Pixie tangerines are seedless and easy to peel. They ripen late in the season. Ponkan or Chinese Honey Mandarin is very sweet and fragrant with few seeds. They ripen in early winter. Satsumas, Japanese tangerines called Unshiu in Japan, are seedless with an easy to peel skin. These medium to medium-small fruit ripen very early from late fall into early winter.
You will know it’s about harvest time for tangerines when the fruit is a good shade of orange and begins to soften a bit. This is your chance to do a taste test. Cut the fruit from the tree at the stem with hand pruners. If after your taste test the fruit has reached its ideal juicy sweetness, proceed to snip other fruit from the tree with the hand pruners.
Freshly picked tangerines will last for about two weeks at room temperature or longer if stored in the refrigerator. Do not put them in plastic bags to store them, as they are prone to mold.
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Most tangerines (Citrus reticulata) begin to ripen as early as mid-October into mid-January. The latest varieties ripen from March through May. Hardy only in U.S. Department of Agriculture planting zones 9 and 10, tangerines require plenty of heat to produce quality fruit. The delicious sweet taste results from a combination of low acidity and high sugar content in the flesh of the fruit. The characteristics of modern tangerine tree hybrids are dictated by each plant’s complex genetics, which control fruit flavor and sweetness. Tangerines are genetically programmed by nature to produce sweet fruit. The secret to obtaining the sweetest tasting tangerines from your tree is patience.
Watch for tangerines on your tree to begin to change from green to yellow or orange. Wait four to five weeks after that to taste the fruit.
Cut a tangerine from the tree. Do not pull the fruit from the tree. Tangerine skin is delicate and “plugs” easily, leaving a gaping hole in the rind. Sever the stem with clean, sharp shears just above the fruit. Pay no mind to the tangerine’s skin color. Green rind does not mean sour fruit. Citrus fruits turn color naturally as days become warmer. The flesh inside may be sweet and fully mature while skins are still green.
Taste test a tangerine one week later. If the fruit is not satisfactory, check back in a week. Do not pick the remaining tangerines. Unlike other tree fruits, citrus stops ripening as soon as it is harvested. Repeat weekly testing until you are happy with the depth of sweetness. The longer tangerines remain on the tree, the sweeter they become. Mature citrus can stay on the tree for several months without losing fruit quality.
Refrigerate picked tangerines immediately. The fruit will remain delicious for up to six weeks. Do not leave tangerines on the counter. They develop a funny taste and shriveled skin within about 10 days at room temperature.
Water your tangerine tree regularly to keep it healthy. Consistent watering maximizes production of quality fruit. Water one or two times each week throughout the growing season in the absence of rainfall. Allow the top inch or two of soil to dry out before watering again. Give the tree an inch of water weekly from October through February in the absence of rainfall to keep the soil hydrated during the winter months. Moist soil freezes, protecting tangerine tree roots from damage.
Leave the tangerines on the tree when frost is predicted. Brief dips into the high 20s will not harm these durable fruits. If you are expecting temperatures that low to last for more than a few hours, drape the tangerine tree with old blankets. Cover the plant completely from the top to the ground to keep the tangerines warm enough to keep them from freezing within the canopy. String outdoor holiday lights throughout the limbs, and turn them on from dusk to dawn. Do not use LED lights, which produce no heat. Uncover the tree during the day to allow it to soak up all the heat possible. Wrap the tree’s trunk in cardboard from the lower limbs to the ground, and secure with twine at dusk. Remove the wrap when the sun comes up.
Harvesting your delicious oranges, lemons, and limes is the reason you began this citrus tree growing adventure. Now that all of your care and cultivation has paid off, it is time to harvest and store your citrus fruit so you can enjoy and share it.
Citrus fruit does not further ripen and sweeten after picking, and many varieties will look bright orange or invitingly lemon yellow well before the fruit is ready to pick and eat. The best way to know if your citrus fruit is ready to pick is by tasting. The flavor and sweetness of your citrus fruit depends on the weather and conditions of the growing season, and not the time in storage after picking.
A best practice is to harvest fruit growing lower to the ground first. Frost tends to affect lower fruit more, and low fruit may also be susceptible to splashing dirt, which can soil fruit or invite pests in heavy rains.
To remove citrus from the tree, gently twist the individual fruit from the branch. Some easy-to-peel varieties like tangerines or honeybells should be clipped from their branches. Wrinkled citrus fruit skin is an indication of fruit that has been left on the tree for too long.
Meyer lemons are usually ready to harvest between August and February and are safe to pick once they turn yellow. Lemons stored at room temperature will last for about a week. Refrigerated lemons should keep for up to a month. Lemons can take up to 4 months from bloom to harvest.
Key limes are usually ready to harvest in the summer. Key limes are harvested prior to fully ripening while still green. Key limes can be used when green, but will also soften somewhat as they ripen and turn pale yellow.
Valencia oranges are usually ready to harvest in late spring to mid summer. Oranges keep better at room temperature.
Tangerines are harvested in winter and spring and will only keep a few days.
Ripe citrus fruit can remain on the tree for several weeks. If your fruit needs to be harvested and you are not able to use your fruit right away, you can store it in a cool place for several weeks.
A friend asked me how to know when to pick the tangerines from his tree. My first thought was, it’s obvious, you pick them when they taste good. But then I remembered that for some people gardening is full of rights and wrongs he was afraid there was a correct or incorrect time to pick his tangerines.
“Are the fruit mostly orange?” I asked.
“Did it taste tart? Did it taste OK?”
“It tasted good, definitely not tart.”
Color: the weak indicator
We had been surfing during that terse exchange, but we don’t have to shout in between waves here. So let’s get nuanced, botanical, even maybe philosophical.
Part of the maturing process of oranges and tangerines in Southern California is that they eventually fade their rind color from green to orange. No sweet oranges or tangerines that I know of will be ripe in our climate before they’ve turned orange. So once they’ve changed color, you can consider giving them a pick and taste.
However, it’s true that some varieties turn orange long before they taste sweet. Take the Gold Nugget mandarin, for example. It’s a “late-season” mandarin. Here is a photo I took of my tree on January 15.
Orange fruit: they look ready. But they were still pretty sour on this date. Gold Nuggets from this tree don’t taste sweet until March at the earliest. So the rind color is something of an indicator of maturity, but its not directly linked to how sweet the inside is.
What causes the rind to turn orange, then, if not overall fruit maturity? Let me show you some “mandarinas” that I bought on a recent trip to Costa Rica.
(As an aside, let me acknowledge that I’m using “ mandarin” and “tangerine” interchangeably in this article even though a citrus taxonomist would rightly point out that they’re not synonymous.)
If found in a grocery store in the U.S., they’d never sell. But they’re as mature and colored as they’ll ever get there. Nighttime low temperatures in Costa Rica are not low enough to turn them a uniform and beautiful orange, as they get in California. Oranges and tangerines grown in California are far prettier than those grown in tropical climates, and it’s because of our colder nights. (Read more about citrus peel coloration in this University of Florida publication.)
Our oranges and mandarins taste better too, in my opinion they have more citrus tang whereas I find the tropical fruit insipid.
Taste: the conclusive criterion
Taste is subjective, of course. Yet taste is the only conclusive test of whether or not it’s time for you to pick the oranges and tangerines from your tree. My friend said he’d picked some of his tangerines and they’d tasted fine. I told him it was time to pick them then. The right time to harvest is whenever they taste good — to you .
Or your wife. My wife likes her citrus tart. I pick them for her at least a month before I start picking for myself. Oranges and tangerines get sweeter the longer they hang on the tree.
Growth process of oranges and tangerines
Here is how an orange or tangerine grows: In the late winter or spring, the tree flowers. Small green fruitlets form and enlarge through the summer. In the late fall, they start to change from green to yellow to orange — each variety on a slightly different schedule, and each variety a slightly different hue, ultimately. But it’s the chilly nights of November that coincide with maturing fruit to transform the rind color from green to orange, and it so happens that in the late fall the earliest of tangerine varieties also start tasting sweet. (Think Satsuma and Kishu.) Some others, however, remain tart until the spring (a full year of growing on the tree). Valencia oranges take so long to sweeten that there are two generations of fruit on the tree simultaneously, as you can see in the photo at the top of the page.
As I said, all oranges and tangerines get sweeter the longer they remain on the tree so if you taste one and it’s more acidic than you like, give the others more hang time. Eventually, they will reach their peak of sugar, nadir of acid. Their rinds will become more loosely attached to the flesh inside, making them easier to peel. But also, the pulp inside will proceed to start drying out. At last, the fruit begins to drop to the ground and rot.
What all citrus do not do, by the way, is ripen more after being picked from the tree. That is, the fruit will not get sweeter on your kitchen counter. Citrus are not “climacteric” fruit they are unlike bananas, for example.
Test case: Secret tangerine
We call this our “secret tangerine” tree.
It’s an old tree that continues to survive and produce fruit in an unirrigated far corner of our property. We don’t know the variety we didn’t plant it. But over the years, we’ve discovered that it tastes good after all of our other tangerines, about the same time as our Valencia oranges. Still, every year, we go through the “pick and taste” routine until we really start the harvest. Here at the end of spring is that time, my children and I are very happy to report.
The good news is that oranges and tangerines do not transform in flavor very fast. They don’t have a two-week window of good eating like some peaches, for example. If you harvest citrus and like the taste, you don’t need to pick them all within that week, lest they rot and be wasted. All varieties that I know of “store” on the tree for months.
Which months? If you know the variety name of your fruit, you can get a rough idea of when to pick the fruit by using some of the harvest data within the University of California, Riverside’s Citrus Variety Collection.
Or check out this chart from Four Winds Growers, located in Northern California.
And here is an amazing, fancy chart that I made of the harvest times of the varieties that I grow in my yard (I’m in inland San Diego County):
Maybe you have one of these varieties too. All the while, remember that your tree is not going to mature its fruit at exactly the same time as another in another location — even if it’s the same variety. Your yard’s micro-climate is different.
For reference, in inland locations where it heats up more as well as earlier in the year, harvest dates are earlier compared to locations close to the beach. So my mandarins taste sweeter before yours in Oxnard do. Yet, mine will become over-mature long before those in Oxnard.
In addition, certain oranges and tangerines may never get as sweet as you hope if you live in sight of the ocean. I occasionally pick navel oranges from trees growing at the Salk Institute at the University of California, San Diego, near the Torrey Pines golf course. Those oranges are always so bland that they are barely worth eating.
The weather every year is also different. No two years will have the exact same harvest dates. My Valencia oranges taste excellent here on June 1, 2018 whereas they usually reach their peak flavor at the end of June. This past winter was extraordinarily warm.
What I like to do for my orange and tangerine (and all other fruit) trees is associate the harvest season with a birthday or holiday. Come to think of it though, I only use a version of this strategy for my Valencias. In my mind, I can never forget when to pick them because I grew up swimming in my grandparents pool during the summer and taking breaks beside one of their Valencia trees getting sweet, sticky juice all over my face, chest, and hands.
Here is a short video describing when to pick oranges and tangerines:
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