The satsuma orange tree (Citrus unshiu) is a mandarin orange and one of the most popular citrus varieties in the world. The satsuma is an easy to peel, semi-seedless citrus that goes by many names. These include tangerine, naartjie, the satsuma orange or satsuma mandarin, the cold hardy mandarin, and unshu mikan.
They are grown in the Gulf Coast, New Zealand, parts of South America, South Africa, central China, Japan, Korea, Spain, and near the Black Sea.
There are numerous varieties that cluster among mandarins but others are unique hybrids. As one of the oldest mandarin cultivars, the satsuma is a proven variety beloved by growers the world over.
History of the Satsuma Orange Tree
The satsuma orange tree originated in Wenzhou in the southeastern Zhejiang province of China. While the satsuma originated in China, it was introduced to Western cultivators through growers in Japan.
The wenzhou migan, as it is called in China, has been cultivated there since at least 2,400 years ago. It was a common tribute item for imperial dynasties. Many varieties were brought to Japan from China as early as the eight century.
The tree was brought from Japan to North America by Jesuits residing in New Orleans, Louisiana. At this time, New Orleans was in a part of the Spanish empire known as New Spain. Jesuit missionaries started groves at their plantation and later re-cultivated south in Plaquemines Parish for better frost protection.
These oranges are still grown there in the modern day. From there, the satsuma orange was cultivated throughout the United States but especially during the 19th century.
During the Meiji era of Japanese history, some of these oranges were brought to the United States by the wife of General Van Valkenburgh, the nation’s Minister to Japan. This is when they came to be most popularly known as satsuma oranges after the former Satsuma Province in Japan. Toward the end of this period, over one million satsuma orange trees were imported to the lower Gulf Coast.
States including Florida still have high numbers of these trees. Multiple towns took the name Satsuma in honor of the fruit’s local importance, including in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Alabama. Jackson County, Florida had named itself the Satsuma Capital of the World by 1920.
Tree / Fruit Characteristics
The satsuma orange is a mandarin-pomelo hybrid, with almost a quarter of its genetics coming from the pomelo. This contributes to the unique characteristics of both the satsuma tree and fruit.
Satsuma trees rarely have thorns. This helps make them more popular than other varieties especially when thorns could be an issue. Satsumas using dwarf rootstock remain at quite small, manageable sizes. They grow flat and wide, though, so they still require adequate space.
The satsuma orange fruit is an exceptionally sweet citrus. It rarely contains seeds. Fruit grow to a similar size as in other mandarin varieties. Fruits are easy to peel because of their loose, leather-like skin that gives less resistance than other citruses. Rinds are smooth or slightly rough. Fruits can be broken into anywhere from 10 to 12 segments that are easily separated but have strong individual membranes.
Satsuma oranges are delicate once peeled and tend to break down under rough handling. Fruits tend to change color slightly based on their growing environment’s climate. The more humidity fruit are exposed to during growth, the greener the rind tends to be. Fruits grown where night temperatures drop often have bright reddish orange color when ripe.
Satsumas are a particularly cold-hardy citrus that actually sweetens when planted in colder climates. Mature satsumas can survive temperatures as low as 12 F for a few hours at a time. In fact, only the kumquat is a more cold-hardy fruit among edible citruses. Satsumas will grow in USDA hardiness zones 8 through 11, but they will do best in areas with cold winters and hot summers.
To learn more about how to grow the Satsuma orange tree, check out our link here.
Size and Spacing
Satsuma trees grow low and wide, so they need plenty of space to branch out. That said, these are small to medium sized trees that are a good fit if you are looking to fill a backyard or start a personal orchard. They tend to max out at about 20 feet high. Satsumas grafted onto dwarf citrus rootstock can be as short as six feet, making them even more manageable.
Satsuma oranges are parthenocarpic. This means that they develop fruit without pollination and produce seedless fruit. They do not require pollination by other cultivars nor do they produce much pollen. They are often propagated through grafting onto compatible citrus rootstock, as this is the most reliable method.
Satsuma Tree Care
Satsumas can be grown from seed. These trees will take about eight years to produce their first fruits. They can also be grafted onto other citrus rootstocks which tend to be ready in half the time. This gives flexibility whether you desire larger trees with a longer wait or lesser size for a faster harvest.
Satsuma trees require full sun for proper fruiting. Make sure you plant your tree somewhere it will receive at least eight to ten hours of full sunlight. More than this is fine but not necessary. However, they do not like excessive wind. You can prevent wind damage with a building or a fence.
Satsumas require lots of water. Trees should be watered deeply to keep up with the demands of the intensive growing season. Water more often during dry periods to keep soil moist. These trees enjoy humidity but do not respond well to drying out. If you experience drought conditions, be careful to keep your tree adequately hydrated.
Satsuma trees tend to grow low and flat. Because satsuma trees have less foliage than other citruses and flatter growth, pruning them is a distinct process. Focus less on foliage volume and more on branch position. Make sure to trim limbs that come too close to the ground. Fruit on these branches is much more susceptible to rot since they tend to rest in the dirt.
Watch out for the fungus Elsinoe fawcetti, known as sour orange scab. This causes lesions like warts on the tree’s branches, leaves, and fruit. The inside of fruit is usually, but not always, left untouched. Pruning helps prevent fungal development and spread.
Diseases And Care
Like most citrus trees, Satsuma orange trees can attract a number of pests and develop certain diseases. We mentioned sour orange scab above, but that is not the only infection to watch out for.
If your Satsuma tree develops root root, of which there are many kinds, you can treat it with a commercial fungicide specified for citrus trees. However, there are certain diseases that may necessitate removing the infected trees altogether. Luckily, these are specific to certain regions and are much rarer.
Common Uses For The Fruit
Satsuma oranges are typically consumed raw. They also make up a significant part of juice and canned fruit production. This is because they tend not to respond well to rough handling but can be preserved or juiced easily.
What Do Satsuma Oranges Taste Like?
Satsuma orange fruits are sweet, tangy, and far less acidic than many other citruses. Their light, plump taste and texture make them popular as an afternoon snack or addition to a light meal.
Satsuma oranges are useful for fruit salads, cakes, tarts, and jams. Their flavor adapts well in baking, meats, and fish. They should be cooked or baked with care since the flesh is easily damaged and discolored by rough handling.
Satsuma oranges are delicious when eaten raw. Since they ripen so early in the season, they are the first citrus to reach fresh markets each year.
Canning / Freezing / Drying
Satsumas are a great choice for jellies, jams, and juices. Canning, freezing, or drying are all viable options for preserving these fruits. Freeze on trays in pieces to prevent them from sticking together and store them in freezer bags or containers. Just be sure to treat fruit gently during the preservation process to protect quality and flavor.
Health Benefits of Satsuma Oranges
Satsuma orange fruits are full of vitamins and minerals that make them a nutritious addition to any diet. Satsumas contain vitamins A, C, E, and B1, as well as calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, iron, manganese, and zinc. Plus, fruits are high in dietary fiber. Fruits also contain beta-carotene which may have positive impacts on eye health.
Learn more about the health benefits of Satsuma oranges here.
Where To Buy Satsuma Orange Trees
Satsuma orange trees are available online on websites like Nature Hills. Most places in the United States are able to receive satsuma shipments but not all. Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Louisiana prohibit citrus shipments from out of state to prevent the spread of disease. If you live in these states, you will need to find a local seller.
Where To Buy Satsuma Oranges
Satsuma orange fruits need to be handled carefully, so they tend not to ship well. The best quality satsumas will be ones grown close by. That said, satsuma fruits are found at supermarkets across the country in fresh and canned varieties.
Wrapping Up The Satsuma Orange Tree
The satsuma orange seems poised to remain a highly prized cultivar for years to come. Their easily peeled, seedless sweet fruits are one of the most popular citruses around the world. The satsuma’s status as one of the oldest citrus varieties is a testament to its enduring aesthetic and harvest qualities. Satsuma trees stand up to cold better than other citruses and their soft, delicious fruit is popular raw or in prepared dishes. Since they can be easily grown in pots, satsumas are even a popular cultivar outside traditional climates.