Mobile and Baldwin counties were a buckle on the “Satsuma Belt.” The Japanese Mandarin satsuma was introduced to the United States in 1876, and within two years, it was being grown in Alabama. The fruit is similar to a tangerine but has far fewer seeds, and its thinner rind is easier to peel.
By the early 1900s, the commercial planting of the fruit was taking place across the Gulf Coast, and new towns were named Satsuma in Alabama, Florida and Louisiana. Baldwin County’s first trees arrived from Boston in 1898, and an orchard had been planted there by 1904.
Commercial orchards were soon established in Mobile County, from Fowl River to Wilmer. Former Oregon Sen. Jonathan Bourne Jr. established his Carol Plantation in Theodore and planted 36, 000 satsuma trees and 7, 000 pecan trees in 1915. The Horticultural Development Company of St. Louis purchased more than 5, 000 acres and hired J. Lloyd Abbot as superintendent of the orchards, which were west of today’s Mobile Airport.
A Land Boom
An important financial aspect of these projects was the subdivision of the lands for small farms. Brochures were sent north explaining that by planting property in both pecans and satsumas, the farmer could lead a leisurely existence. According to one such pamphlet, ripe satsumas were in no rush to be harvested, and the pecans just dropped from the trees so both crops could be collected whenever it was convenient. Just how many believed this and purchased land as a result has gone unrecorded.
In 1915, the Gulf Coast Citrus Exchange had begun to introduce the fruit to northern markets under the label “Sugar Sweet.” Satsumas were pricier than oranges but had the benefit of being ripe well in advance of other popular citrus. By the early 1920s, the exchange was operating eight packing plants in both Mobile and Baldwin counties, and the number of train-car loads headed north was in the hundreds.
The Boom Goes Bust
The satsuma boom eventually came to a frosty end. A late spring freeze in 1934 left most farmers out of oil for their smudge pots, and thousands of trees died, resulting in a decline in harvest. Due to the Great Depression, consumers able to afford the pricey citrus were also scarce. Another severe freeze in November 1940 dealt the industry the final blow, killing the once flourishing venture in Lower Alabama.
Luckily, not all of the Satsuma trees died in those freezes. Many of them have survived to this day and are still producing the sweet fruit the nation could not get enough of so long ago. While today much of America has forgotten the fruit’s existence, many Gulf Coast residents are fortunate enough to own a tree and still enjoy the satsumas’ sweet, juicy goodness.
Fruits of Labor
Satsuma — it’s more than just a north Mobile County city. Otherwise known as citrus unshiu to the Japanese and scientists, the fruits are relatively seedless, easy-peel cousins of oranges, mandarins and tangerines. (Satsumas, which were once marketed as “Christmas tangerines, ” have a thicker skin than tangerines, which is why they are juicier and their rinds are easier to peel.) The name comes from the Satsuma province in Japan, which exported the juicy orbs to the West in the late 1800s.
Since putting down roots in the new world, the citrus has thrived in subtropical climates along the Gulf Coast. Bill Finch, chief science and horticultural advisor for Mobile Botanical Gardens, says satsumas prosper here because our climate is almost identical to that of Japan. They need bouts of warm weather followed by cooler periods to develop their deep flavor. For those interested in growing the petite fruits, here are some fun facts and helpful tips:
- If you grow them yourself, do not expect much fruit for the first three years, Finch says. “But they’ll produce pretty nicely by the fourth year, and by the tenth year, you may be picking 400 pounds of fruit a year from each tree.”
- Give trees space to grow.
- Late October through December is the ripe time to pick satsumas.
- Mix the fruit with vodka to make a nice alternative to limoncello.
- Satsumas also work well in cakes, marmalades and salads.
Want to pick your own? Sunnyland Satsuma Orchard – at the intersection of Grand Bay Wilmer Road North and Tanner Williams Road – is Alabama’s only U-pick satsuma orchard that lets you select the fruit right from the tree. Fill up 5-gallon buckets to take home for $15. Open Fridays and Saturdays in November and December. For more information, visit sunnylandsatsuma.com.
Mobile Botanical Gardens • 5151 Museum Drive. 342-0555.
This November and December, Mobile Botanical Gardens is packing in citrus-centered events, full of family-friendly activities promoting the delicious fruits. Highlights include a citrus day field trip out to the gardens on Nov. 19, where visitors can learn more about the history of lemons, limes, oranges and more. Also, as a part of “10 Days of Citrus” (Dec. 6 – 15), special citrus-themed menu items will be available at various restaurants around town. Additionally, local satsumas will be available for purchase during Mobile Botanical Gardens’ annual holiday sale on Dec. 6 – 7.
text by Tom McGehee and Mallory Boykin