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Citrus on Baronne

Louisiana citrus: 'The lazy man's crop'

“A tangerine is just a yankee satsuma.”

Such a line may well epitomize the confused webs of regionalism, contradictions, and myth that define the citrus growers’ profession.The speaker, Alan Vaughn, is the County Extension Agent for Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parish Citrus Farmers. He recently came to the Parkway Partners Second Saturday to address a small but devoted clique of New Orleans amateur citrus-growers.

Though they are virtually identical, the tangerine is named after Tangiers and the latter after a little-known Japanese town half the world away, Satsuma. Like orange and lemon, they were both first cultivated in southeast Asia. With the rise of silk-road trade, they were disseminated in ports world-wide, and it is fitting that as a colonial city, as a city of cross-roads and trade, New Orleans assumed the citrus-growing tradition, one whose origins are as confused as the yat dialect or the architecture of the shotgun.

“Citrus is the poor man’s, the lazy man’s, crop,” said Vaughn very early on. They require very little coaxing to grow to immense proportions. At its prime, a grapefruit tree, for instance, can yield 500 pounds of fruit per annum. The difficulty for many new initiates, however, is to reach that prime. That is where the Parkway Partners come in. They sell a variety of trees from the shoot to the sapling to the young tree in 100-gallon buckets. One can find not only citrus but crepe myrtle, cypress, savannah holly and other old Southern Louisiana hands.

The sale takes place on the second Saturday of each month, excluding the next one, of course, at the vendor’s location at 1137 Baronne (or slightly west of the overpass). Many of the visitors last weekend were opting toward smaller-scale purchases, such as the sapling bok-choi, cilantro, rosemary, shard and cabbage. Vaughn’s lecture was not a typical month’s fare.

Many in the audience, which overflowed the room into the hallway, brought along fruits or cuts from their own trees to ask Vaughn what they were doing wrong.

“My satsumas are gross,” allowed one woman, and displayed an elephantitic orange fruit that could have been grown on Three-Mile Island. Apparently, in the first few years of a fruit tree’s productive life, such aberrations are common.

Vaughn’s main advice was to not plant by seed. Seed-planting was ideal, he suggested, for “the patient gambler,” but groves from seed tend to be thornier and sparser. He recommended (conveniently for his hosts) purchasing nurslings, or, for the more adventurous, grafting onto rootstock.

This columnist, however, purchased seed. The first citrus grown in Louisiana were seedlings, as they were most easily transported by sailors, and many low-quality wild groves resulted. This is by no means the highest stake trade-off between scientific fact and sentimental gesture, and whatever the case the urban citrus farmer has unique access to a succulent range of sweet to sour citrus.

One of the most valuable pieces of advice Vaughn delivered was to wait until winter began to reap, in order to protect the trees against frost. Concurrently, one might take Highway 1 down through Lockport this time of year and collect lemon-orange hybrids that are sweet enough to mimic lemonade and acidic enough to whiten your teeth. Many farmers put a few bags of their crop out in front of the house with a collection box upon which a price, generally two to four dollars, is recorded in a hand-painted scrawl.

Very little rivals the early morning taste of a bittersweet citrus straight from one’s own tree. And nothing better steels one against this bone-bristling fog.

Erik Vande Stouwe writes about New Orleans for NolaVie.