The Christmas Orange

Growing up in Mobile, I always thought the delicious satsuma was named after the town that lies a few miles north of the Port City. I wondered if the rest of the world even knew about the sweet, wonderful orb or if it was just another of our well-kept secrets, like Mardi Gras or the Delta. 

Lo and behold, I had it all backwards. The town of Satsuma was named after the foreign fruit in anticipation of the (unfulfilled) agricultural promises to come. Production of the satsuma was booming in the 1900s until Mother Nature directed her icy stare at the Gulf Coast, destroying all but a few of the wintertime citrus trees. Here, learn about the origins of the satsuma orange, its journey to Mobile and its never-ending fight against the cold.

The Citrus unshiu, better known in these parts as the satsuma orange, is a seedless fruit that originated in Asia. Well, technically, it averages 1.5 seeds per fruit. Good for your lunch, bad for your lunch break seed-spitting competitions. 

Satsuma trees are actually among the most cold-tolerant edible citrus species, able to survive even when the temperature drops to 15 degrees. Only the hardy kumquat can top this feat! 

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The name “satsuma” is usually credited to the wife of Gen. Van Valkenberg, the U.S. minister to Japan from 1866 to 1869. Although the general sent home the fruit by way of the Satsuma Province in Japan, the citrus fruit did not originate from that area, contrary to common belief. Way to fact check, Mrs. Valkenberg!

Other monikers include satsuma mandarin, cold hardy mandarin, Christmas orange and zipper-skin citrus for its trademark easy-to-peel rind. At my house, it’s called breakfast.

The satsuma tree is self-fertile, meaning that its flowers have both male and female parts. Its fruit, which is about three-fourths the size of a tennis ball, reaches maturity around November and December. 

Our history in Satsumas

  • Although scientists believe it originated in China, the satsuma was first reported in Japan more than 700 years ago. In 1878, just two years after the “Owari” satsuma was introduced in the United States, the first satsuma trees reached Alabama.
  • Because of a similarity to Japan’s climate, satsumas immediately thrived in the warm Gulf region. In the 1920s, the Gulf Coast Citrus Exchange shipped thousands of train cars of satsumas to eager eaters in northern markets.
  • In 1915, an area north of Mobile, then called Fig Tree Island, was renamed Satsuma in honor of the booming Japanese fruit. However, several freezes from 1924 to 1933 severely damaged the trees and their fruit. This was compounded by the fact that longleaf pine forests, which had once protected the town from cold northern winds, had recently been cut down. Then, in 1940, a sudden drop in temperature during growing season dealt a fatal blow, essentially eliminating the Gulf Coast satsuma industry for the next 50 years.
  • We weren’t the only geniuses who thought to honor the fruit; Florida, Louisiana and Texas also have towns named Satsuma.
  • The introduction of micro sprinkler irrigation in the 1990s was a major step for the satsuma industry, allowing farmers to reduce the impact of hard freezes. The result was an increase in satsuma acreage in both Mobile and Baldwin counties.

Through mid-December, you can pick your own local satsumas! Visit Sunnyland Satsuma Orchard at 1381 Grand Bay Wilmer Road on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Check out for more information.

text by Breck pappas

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