UC's new citrus varieties seek niche in market
By TIM HEARDEN
University of California scientists say a new citrus variety called Valentine, which was unveiled in 2008 as a three-way hybrid involving pummelo, is gaining interest among niche growers in Southern California.
The new variety combines the large size and low acidity of pummelo with a complex, floral taste of Dancy mandarin and the juicy red pulp from the Ruby blood orange, the researchers explain on a UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources scientific blog.
The hybrid was created at UC-Riverside's Citrus Experiment Station, whose collection of varieties includes two trees each of more than 1,000 different citrus types, according to the station's website.
The Valentine was actually decades in the making, as it takes multiple generations of trees to develop a three-way cross, said Tracy Kahn, a scientist and curator of the variety collection. She said private niche farmers are now growing it, and it's begun to show up at farmers' markets in Southern California.
"Valentine is more of a specialty fruit because it matures at that certain time in February," Kahn told the Capital Press. "It's really cool. if you turn the fruit upside down and cut it longways, it looks like a heart. It has a really interesting flavor."
The Valentine is unique in being a grapefruit-like fruit with anthocyanin pigmentation, which UC researchers believe is valuable at a time when many antioxidant-rich fruits have seen sales burgeon because of their perceived health benefits, the research station's website explains.
While the fruit has generated some interest among growers, however, it remains to be seen whether Valentine will become a big commercial success. Of the hundreds of citrus varieties that UC-Riverside has created, only a few have ended up being produced on a large enough scale to be available in retail markets.
Among those are cultivars such as the Cara Cara navel orange, the seedless mandarin and the "Cocktail" pummelo-mandarin hybrid, the scientists explained. The seedless mandarin was "the most highly anticipated and really took off immediately," said Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.
For a variety to take off commercially, there needs to be enough demand for it to get enough nursery trees started to build up a population, Blakely said.
"They come out with a few every year, but just because they come out with them doesn't mean they're all going to be commercially viable," he said.
Some varieties may be useful for growers who want to diversify their plantings to include some niche fruit, as long as the new types aren't over-planted, he said.
"There have been some busts over the years," Blakely said. "A grower certainly wants to do some homework before he gets into some of these untested varieties."
Kahn believes the Valentine will be a "small specialty thing," although she thinks growers outside of Southern California may take note of its relative success.
"It takes a while for something to develop a larger market," she said.
UC-Riverside Citrus Variety Collection: http://www.citrusvariety.ucr.edu
California Citrus Mutual: http://www.cacitrusmutual.com