Sophia Colombari Figueroa
Have you ever wondered why cuties are called cuties? The other day at the dinner table a group of Storey housemates and I were brainstorming food items to request for the open kitchen. Someone shouted “cuties!” and everyone agreed with excitement. There is something about cuties; they are convenient, healthy, and delicious. We were asking for cuties when we meant mandarin oranges, but where did that cute nickname come from? More on that later…

For now, lets focus on the origin of mandarin oranges and how they are related to other fruits in the Citrus genus. Understanding their origin and phylogeny is complicated by their high mutation frequency and cross-compatibility between species.(1) The most widely accepted systems have ranged from 16 total citrus species and 3 mandarin species (2) to 162 total citrus species and 36 mandarin species (3). More recent studies suggest that the Citrus genus is composed of four basic clusters: citron (C. medica L.), mandarin (C. reticulata), pummelo (C. maxima) and papeda (C. halimii) (4). However, there is still debate about whether papeda is a separate cluster or belongs with the pummelo cluster (5).

Mandarins are special within the Citrus genus for many reasons. Of the four basic Citrus species, mandarins are the only sweet one(4). Therefore, we owe the sweetness of other critic fruits to the mandarin. For example, oranges are thought to be a hybrid between mandarin and pummelo(4). Mandarins are also very diverse with a large number of varieties, cultivars, and hybrids including tangerines and clementines.
So, what is a cutie? Not all mandarins are cuties, and cuties are not the same variety throughout the year. Cuties are patented seedless, easy-to-peel mandarins grown in the San Joaquin Valley of Central California. The rise of the CUTIES® began in 1990 when a freeze badly damaged California’s citrus (6). After confirming that clementines could endure the extreme weather, Sun Pacific partnered with Paramount Citrus to grow equal amounts of seedless clementines and sell them under a single brand name. CUTIES® consist of two varieties: clementines from November to January and W. Murcott mandarins from February to April (6).

Cuties are not without controversies. Many people worry that they are genetically modified, although they are not. Others worry that they are not organic. Legal disputes have arisen with beekeepers because bees pollinate the mandarin trees causing them to produce seeds (6). CUTIES® growers claim that they protect the trees from pollination with nets. However, they have not denied the use of insecticides (7). Despite controversies and disputes, CUTIES® are very popular. Mandarins are the most profitable citrus in America, and the way “cuties” have entered our vocabulary exemplifies the power of marketing(6). Perhaps this also reflects how much our society values convenience. After all, cuties are exceptionally convenient and also healthier than most sweet snacks.

1. Penjor T, Yamamoto M, Uehara M, et al. Phylogenetic Relationships of Citrus and Its Relatives Based on matK Gene Sequences. PLOS ONE. 2013
2. Swingle WT. The botany of Citrus and its wild relatives of the orange subfamily. The citrus industry. University of California, Berkeley, CA. 1:129–474. 1943.
3. Tanaka T. Fundamental discussion of citrus classification. Studia Citrologica 14:1–6. 1977.
4. Yingzhi L, Yunjiang C, Nengguo T, et al. Phylogenetic Analysis of Mandarin Landraces, Wild Mandarins, and Related Species in China Using Nuclear LEAFY Second Intron
and Plastid trnL-trnF Sequence. J. Amer. Soc. Hort. Sci. 132(6): 796–806. 2007.
5. Jordan M. The Big War Over a Small Fruit. Wall Street Journal. 2012.
6. Cuties: California Clementines. Frequently Asked Questions.

Leave a Reply