Caring for Citrus: How to Plant and Grow Mandarin Tree

HomeHow ToCare GuideCaring for Citrus: How to Plant and Grow Mandarin Tree

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The mandarin tree (Citrus reticulata) is a small, rounded citrus tree originating in Asia. Its leaves are rich green, oval, or lance-like, slightly leathery, and have a distinct citrus scent when crushed. It bears small white five-pointed petals that grow in clusters. The fruit is smaller than a typical orange.

Mandarin oranges have become one of the most popular snacks among children and adults. They are deliciously sweet, healthy, and easy to peel. Mandarins are a great on-the-go snack, but they can also be used in salads, marinades, desserts, and refreshing juice. There are various varieties of mandarins, each with its unique flavor profile and characteristics.

  • Botanical Name: Citrus reticulata
  • Common Name: Mandarin, mandarin orange
  • Plant Type: Small, rounded citrus tree
  • Family: Rutaceae
  • Height: Standard trees grow to an average of 25 feet at maturity, while semi-dwarf trees reach 8-10 feet.
  • Foliage: Glossy green leaves
  • Climate: Thrives in warm, subtropical to tropical climates
  • Sun Exposure: Full to partial sun
  • Soil Requirements: Well-draining soil
  • Hardiness Zones: Varies by variety (typically zones 9-11)
  • Seasonal Features: Blooms in late fall and early winter, fruits ripen during the same period
  • Special Features: Easy-peeling, super-sweet fruit
  • Toxicity: Non-toxic

History of Mandarin Trees

Mandarin trees (Citrus reticulata) are native to Southeast Asia. They’ve been cultivated for thousands of years and are widely grown in various parts of the world today. The original wild mandarin is believed to have originated in the Nanling Mountains in southern China. In addition to China, ancient cultivations of mandarins were also found in countries like Vietnam and the Philippines. These regions contributed to the diversification of Mandarin varieties.

By around the 8th century, mandarins had spread to Japan, where they were further cultivated and developed into new varieties. Arab traders played a significant role in spreading citrus fruits, including mandarins, throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean region during the Middle Ages. By the 15th century, during the Age of Exploration, Portuguese and Spanish explorers brought mandarin trees from Asia to Europe. The fruit became particularly popular in Mediterranean countries, where the climate was suitable for its cultivation. In the 19th century, mandarins became widely cultivated in Italy, especially in Sicily and Calabria, where they thrived.

Mandarins were introduced to the United States in the mid-19th century. They first arrived in Florida, brought by early settlers and explorers. In the early 20th century, mandarins were introduced to California, which has since become a major producer of the fruit in the United States.

Difference Between Mandarin and Tangerine

Mandarins and tangerines are both citrus fruits that are often confused with each other due to their similarities. While tangerines are a type of mandarin, they have their unique characteristics such as a deeper orange color, sweeter taste, and more seeds. Both fruits are easy to peel.

The term “mandarin” refers to a category of citrus fruits that includes several varieties, including tangerines. Mandarins are one of the original species of citrus fruits from which many hybrids have been developed. Mandarins generally have a lighter orange skin and are slightly larger than tangerines. They are easy to peel and often have a somewhat flattened shape. Mandarins have a sweet and mild flavor with a slight tartness. The presence of seeds in mandarins can vary widely depending on the variety. The skin of mandarins is typically smooth and easy to peel. This category includes varieties such as Clementines, Satsumas, and Dancys.

Tangerines are a subgroup within the Mandarin family. The name “tangerine” originally referred to mandarins that were imported through the port of Tangier in Morocco. Tangerines typically have a deeper reddish-orange skin and are slightly smaller than most mandarins. They also have a more rounded shape. Tangerines tend to be sweeter and less acidic compared to other mandarins. Tangerines often have more seeds compared to some other varieties of mandarins. Tangerines have slightly bumpier skin and are also easy to peel, though sometimes a bit tougher than mandarins. Tangerines are often marketed as their distinct variety but fall under the larger mandarin category. Clementines and Satsumas, often considered tangerines, are specific varieties of mandarins.

Morphological Characteristics

When young, the unripe mandarins blend in with the tree’s leaves. These trees can grow to a mature height of 25 feet, but semi-dwarf varieties reach about 8-10 feet. They bloom in spring, develop fruit in summer, and ripen in late fall and early winter. When ripe, the fruit’s skin is a vibrant orange, that is thin and easy to peel. The fruit is small to medium-sized, usually 2-3 inches in diameter, and has a slightly flattened appearance. Its bark is usually smooth and grayish-brown, and the branches often have small thorns.

Natural Habitat and Distribution Range

Mandarin trees prefer warm, subtropical to tropical climates. These delightful citrus trees thrive in warm, sunny climates and are best suited to USDA zones 9-11. These trees require moderate rainfall and well-drained, sandy loam soils with good fertility.

Now, mandarin trees are cultivated worldwide in regions with suitable climates, including parts of the United States (California and Florida), Mediterranean countries, and various regions in South America, Africa, and Australia. Modern breeding programs have led to the development of numerous mandarin varieties, such as tangerines, clementines, and satsumas, each with unique characteristics in terms of flavor, size, and peelability.

Types of Mandarin Trees

Each type of mandarin tree has its unique characteristics in terms of size, sweetness, seediness, and harvest time. These variations make mandarin trees suitable for different climates and preferences in both commercial agriculture and home gardening.

  • Satsumas originate from Japan and are the coldest-tolerant of all mandarins, typically seedless. They’re known for their easy peeling and sweet flavor.
  • Clementines is a collection of mandarins with varying fruit sizes (from tiny to medium) and a common origin in the mandarin tree.
  • Clementines are popular for their seedlessness and sweet taste. Often marketed as “Cuties” or “Halos.”
  • Comunes encompass various mandarin varieties sold under brands like Halos, Cuties, and Peelz. They produce easy-to-peel, seedless, and delicious mandarin oranges, perfect for snacking or juicing.
  • Emperor is a common variety, known for its sweet flavor and vibrant orange color. It’s a great choice for home gardeners. Imperial is another popular variety, similar to the Emperor. It’s sweet, juicy, and easy to peel.
  • Thorny Mandarin has thorns on its branches but offers delicious fruit. It’s hardy and well-suited for home cultivation.
  • Kinnow is a hybrid of King and Willowleaf mandarins. Known for its high juice content and rich flavor.

Growing Mandarin Trees

Plant your tree in a location that receives ample sunlight at least 6-8 hours of sunlight throughout the day. Avoid planting in shaded areas or near tall structures that could block sunlight. Ensure the chosen location is protected from strong winds, which can damage the tree and its fruit.

If you’re growing mandarin trees indoors, place your tree near a south-facing window where it can receive the most sunlight. If natural light is insufficient, especially during winter months, supplement with artificial lighting. We recommend SANSI 24W LED grow lights, which provide a clean white light and the right mix of light spectrum for growth, leaf flush, flower blossoming, and fruit set. Position the grow light 6 to 18 inches away from your tree, and provide 12 to 16 hours of light per day. Adjust the height of the lights as the tree grows to maintain the optimal distance. If possible, rotate the tree periodically to ensure all sides receive equal light exposure.

Caring Mandarin Trees

Watering

When your tree is young, create a “watering ring” around it. This ring should be about 2 feet across and 3-4 inches deep. Slowly fill the water ring to allow the young tree to absorb moisture effectively. As your tree grows, water it deeply. Allow the water to penetrate the root zone. Avoid shallow and frequent watering, as it may lead to shallow root growth. For mature trees (over three years old), water your mandarin tree once or twice a week in dry climates. Adjust the frequency based on local weather conditions and soil moisture.

Water in the early morning to reduce evaporation and allow the tree to absorb moisture before the day heats up. Regularly check the soil moisture level by inserting a finger or a moisture meter into the soil. The top 2-3 inches should be dry before the next watering.

Temperature

Mandarin trees thrive in temperatures between 55°F and 85°F (13°C – 29°C) which can tolerate short periods of higher or lower temperatures. Ideally, they prefer hot summers and mild winters. USDA zones 8-11 are suitable for mandarin cultivation, and they can withstand temperatures down to 20°F for a short period If temperatures are expected to drop below freezing, it’s important to take protective measures such as covering the tree with frost cloths or bringing potted trees indoors. If temperatures are well above 100°F, ensure the tree receives adequate water and consider providing shade during the hottest parts of the day.

Humidity

Mandarin trees thrive when the humidity levels are just right. Humidity for Mandarin is suitable within the 40-50% range. This helps prevent issues like leaf drop and promotes healthy growth. If the digits fall outside this range, Place the tree on a tray filled with water and pebbles (ensuring the pot is above the water level). Or consider using misting, or humidifiers to manage humidity levels. In outdoor environments, natural humidity usually suffices. However, additional watering and misting can help maintain the necessary humidity levels during particularly dry periods.

Soil

Plant mandarin orange trees in a site that receives full sun or partial shade. The soil should be sandy and well-drained. Mandarin trees tolerate a wide range of soil types but require good drainage. They also benefit from soil with high organic matter. While they can tolerate a wide pH range, they thrive in a pH range between 5.5 and 6.2.

If your soil is heavy clay or sandy, Adding organic matter like compost or well-rotted manure can improve soil structure, fertility, and water retention. This will help keep the roots hydrated while ensuring proper drainage. The soil should be rich in essential nutrients. Regular soil testing can help determine nutrient levels and guide fertilization.

Fertilization

Fertilize young trees monthly from early spring to late summer. Use a balanced fertilizer but at half the recommended strength. Fertilize mature trees 3-4 times per year, starting in early spring and ending in late summer. Choose a balanced NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) ratio fertilizer specifically formulated for citrus trees. Look for a citrus blend or a 12-6-6 fertilizer. Sprinkle the fertilizer around the base of the tree in a circle extending out from the trunk to about 18 inches away. Apply a layer of organic mulch around the base of the tree and conduct a soil test every few years to determine the specific nutrient needs of your mandarin tree. Adjust your fertilization regimen based on the test results to ensure all essential nutrients are provided.

Cultivation Techniques

Start shaping young trees during the first 2-3 years after planting. Perform regular pruning after the harvest season, typically in late winter or early spring, before new growth begins. You can remove dead or diseased wood, thin Crowded Branches, shape the tree, control the tree’s height, and spread, Remove Water Sprouts and Suckers. Do not remove more than 20-30% of the canopy in a single year, as this can stress the tree. Focus on maintaining productive wood. Fruit is typically borne on new growth from the previous year.

Harvesting and Storage

Harvesting mandarins typically occurs from late fall to early spring, depending on the variety. The fruit is ready to pick when the skin color changes from green to orange. Check for uniform orange color and slight softness when gently squeezed. It’s important not to leave the fruit on the tree for too long after it turns orange, as it may become sour. Use pruning shears or clippers to cut the fruit from the tree. Make sure to leave a small portion of the stem attached to the fruit. Separate any damaged or overripe fruit to prevent spoilage from spreading to healthy fruit. Remove dirt and debris from the surface of the mandarins using a dry cloth. If necessary, use a damp cloth but ensure the fruit dries completely before storage.

For storage, mandarins maintain their freshness and flavor best when kept in a cool, well-ventilated area with a temperature of around 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit (7 to 10 degrees Celsius). Avoid storing them in direct sunlight or overly humid environments to prevent spoilage. Use ventilated containers or boxes to allow air circulation. Avoid stacking mandarins too high to prevent bruising and ensure even air distribution.

Commercially, mandarins are often coated with a thin layer of food-grade wax to reduce moisture loss and extend shelf life. This can be done at home with food-safe wax sprays. For home storage, refrigerate mandarins in the crisper drawer. They can last up to a month in proper conditions.

Propagating Mandarin Trees

Propagating mandarin trees can be done either through grafting or growing from seed. For most home gardeners and commercial growers, grafting is recommended due to the consistent fruit quality and faster production. However, growing from seed can be a rewarding experience for those interested in horticulture and willing to invest the time and effort.

Grafting

Grafted trees usually bear fruit quicker than seed-grown trees. Since the scion (the top part of the graft) comes from a tree with known fruit quality, the grafted tree will produce the same quality of fruit. Grafted trees generally begin to bear fruit sooner than seed-grown trees, often within 2-3 years. Grafting onto specific rootstocks can provide resistance to certain soil-borne diseases.

  1. Choose a suitable rootstock that is disease-resistant and compatible with your growing conditions.
  2. Use a healthy scion (a cutting from a mature mandarin tree) that has desirable fruit characteristics.
  3. Common techniques include T-budding and cleft grafting. Ensure the cambium layers of the rootstock and scion are properly aligned to facilitate nutrient transfer.

Seed

Growing trees from seeds is generally cheaper as it doesn’t require additional materials like rootstock or scion wood. Growing from seed allows for genetic variation, which can be interesting for breeding new varieties or observing different growth patterns. Seed-grown trees may live longer and grow to be stronger since they develop their root system. Trees grown from seed can take 5-7 years or longer to begin bearing fruit. Seedlings may not inherit the desirable traits of the parent tree, such as fruit size, sweetness, and resistance to diseases.

  1. Extract seeds from a ripe mandarin fruit, clean them, and allow them to dry for a day or two.
  2. Plant seeds in a well-draining potting mix, about 1/2 inch deep. Keep the soil moist but not waterlogged.
  3. Once seedlings have developed several true leaves, transplant them into larger pots or directly into the ground, ensuring they receive full sun and proper care.

Common Diseases and Pests

Watch out for mites, thrips, scales, aphids, and Asian citrus psyllids. Diseases include Phytophthora root rot, Anthracnose, Botrytis, and Huanglongbing (HLB).

Cultural Significance and Symbolism

Mandarin trees in Chinese Culture which are used for New Year Celebrations, are a Symbol of Good Luck and Prosperity. It is customary to give mandarin oranges as gifts during the New Year as a gesture of wishing wealth and happiness. Mandarin trees are used in Feng Shui to attract positive energy. They are often placed in homes and offices to promote prosperity and ward off negative energies. In traditional Chinese weddings, mandarin oranges are exchanged between families as a symbol of unity and happiness. In various cultures, citrus fruits, including mandarins, symbolize fertility and abundance due to their many seeds and vibrant, life-giving color.

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