The fruit of Christmas

In the depths of winter, oranges glow like small suns.
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The Independent Online
Oranges were what made Christmas special for my mother, who was brought up, one of a dozen children, on her family's farm in Wales. I never knew her father, who died before I was born, but he lived vividly through her stories. As a young man, he set sail for the States with four pedigree Hereford bulls as his fortune. He returned with a 10-gallon hat and a pair of Colt pistols to sweep my rather refined Herefordshire grandmother off her feet and into the wilds of the Welsh border country.

His hat hung in our cloakroom all through my childhood, stiff as chipboard, worn completely through in one crease of the crown. Once, I came across my brother standing in front of the hall mirror with the hat on his head, but I could tell from the look on his face that he knew it was, in every respect, too big for him.

By the time the vast family was marshalled in 1918 in front of a photographer's studio backdrop (improbably painted with a scene from classical Italy), my grandfather had mellowed into an Edwardian paterfamilias, broad-shouldered, bearded, the spitting image of the Prince of Wales. But even at this benevolent stage, my mother remembered him each Christmas Eve, driving the gig at a brilliantly reckless pace back from the local market town, with presents for all hidden under a rug. And crates of oranges, which never appeared at any other time in their lives.

They can scarcely be called treats now, but I still think of oranges as particularly Christmassy fruit. They taste better during this season than at any other time of the year. The colour is right, too. Oranges glow like small suns in the depths of the winter solstice.

Unlike the sort of fruit that we are more used to growing - conveyor- belt stuff which blossoms at one end of the growing season and fruits at the other - oranges peak in one outrageous burst: scented blossom and ripe fruit all at the same time. And all at the lowest ebb of the year, when we are most in need of a treat.

I haven't got the right kind of place to overwinter citrus trees (they hate frost), or else I'd have bought some long ago. I can't think of anything I'd like better in the dining room at Christmas than orange trees, soberly leafed, the glossy fruit hanging like baubles from the branches. And imagine the swoony smell.

Imagine is all I can do for the moment. But when I get those trees, they will be planted in big clay pots and set inside the square wooden boxes called Versailles tubs. The most practical kind have one side that lets down, so you can get the pots in and out easily. Mine will have wheels, too, to ease the annual pilgrimage from winter glass to summer sunshine. Citrus trees don't like being under cover the whole time, as early growers soon discovered.

But though we haven't got the trees, I buy the fruit, like my grandfather, by the crate. Christmas oranges are piled up in a pyramid on the window ledge by the back door. They are set in rows along the mantelshelves among mounds of silvered ivy acting as holders for smallish red candles, set in a ring round the table centrepiece. They are wired on to the swags of greenery that hang down the side of the windows in the kitchen and the dining room.

The house fills, not with the scent of the flowers but with the more complex smell of the faintly oily peel. And then, as New Year comes, this changes to a whiff of mould, as the oranges being used as candle holders start quietly to rot. "So symbolic," said a friend at a New Year's lunch, as she gazed transfixed at one of these mouldering fruit, sagging under the weight of its candle.

Nobody has done so spectacularly well out of oranges as Nell Gwyn. She probably sold fruit shipped in from Portugal, where it had been introduced earlier from Ceylon. Of course, it was a seasonal fruit then, appearing from the end of November onwards, when vast quantities of Portuguese oranges were brought into the London docks. But English gardeners had been trying to grow them for almost a hundred years before Gwyn stole the Drury Lane scene. The first one who succeeded was Francis Carew, who had them on his estate at Beddington, near Croydon, in about 1562.

Opinions differ about the right sort of compost to grow potted citrus trees in. Chris Dennis, who, with his wife Amanda, set up the Citrus Centre near Pulborough, West Sussex, two years ago, favours a light, soilless compost; he finds that the soil-based John Innes types dry out too slowly between waterings. But if you use a soilless compost you need to plant in big pots, not less than 2ft across.

"Watering is the key," he says. "You must let the plants dry out between each drink. Most of the citrus trees that die in this country die from drowning." The Dennises mix coarse bark with the compost to improve drainage round the roots in winter. In winter, orange trees should be kept cool and on the dryish side. In summer, the leaves can be sprayed over with a hosepipe at regular intervals.

Pests are most likely to attack while the trees are under cover. Red spider mites, whiteflies, mealybugs and scale insects all love them. If trees get infested, sooty mould soon follows on. The most troublesome time is early spring, when it is still too chilly for the trees to go outside, but their new growth is at its most juicy and attractive to pests. Out of doors, citrus trees are much less trouble, so keep them there as long as you dare.

The old-fashioned way of controlling pests on orange trees combined vigilance with soap. Head gardeners patrolled trees under cover every week. Any that showed signs of infestation were thoroughly drenched with a solution of suds. This is the best way to clean off sooty mould, too. Rub the leaves with your thumbs, gently massaging the mould away.

The modern way is to use biological controls, setting phytoseiulus against red spider, encarsia against whitefly. There are problems though. The citrus overwinter most comfortably at cool, though frost-free temperatures. The predators, particularly the Australian cryptolaemus, work and reproduce best in heat - up to 70F. And you have to let the pests build up before you introduce the predators.

Lemons, types of Citrus limon, are more easily grown than oranges in this country. But there are 25 different kinds of orange available from specialist nurseries, such as the Citrus Centre and Reads. For flavour, the best is undoubtedly the `Washington Navel', introduced into the US from Brazil in 1870. Unfortunately it has a kamikaze tendency to drop all its fruit as soon as they set. For a better chance of oranges for Christmases to come, try `Salustiana' or `Valencia'.

The Citrus Centre is at West Mare Lane, Marehill, Pulborough, West Sussex RH20 2EA (01798 872786). Open Wed-Sun (9.30am-5.30pm). Send a SAE for a catalogue. Plants can be sent by mail order or bought at the Centre.

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