Orange you glad?

It’s the middle of winter, and citrus trees are full of fruit

In February, they seem to dangle from trees in yards and alongside streets all over Chico: Citrus in a rainbow of neon-bright colors.

But how do you tell when to pick those oranges, lemons and other juicy fruit?

When it comes to citrus, color is not enough. You need to take a taste test. It helps if they first got a “kiss of cold.”

We’re having a good citrus season, with local trees heavy with fruit. Citrus fruits in the North State ripen slowly, often taking nine months or more to reach their peak of flavor. They also can hang on the tree for months after maturity.

Adding to the puzzle: Citrus will look ripe long before they are ripe. That leads many gardeners to despair that they planted a “bad” orange or grapefruit variety that will never produce “good” fruit.

Right now, navel oranges are reaching full ripeness while Valencias are still a month or more away. Grapefruit, too, need more time.

Weather, climate and growing conditions all factor into the citrus calendar. Grapefruit grown in Nor Cal can take 12 to 18 months to reach full ripeness, twice as long as the same grapefruit varieties grown in Coachella. The more summer heat, the faster citrus develops.

Once picked, citrus won’t get sweeter or juicier. Bitter or dry oranges often were just picked too early. In addition, oranges benefit from chilly overnight temperatures in the 30s to bring out their natural sugars.

In January, our oranges finally got that “kiss of cold,” and taste much sweeter for it.

According to local citrus experts, ripe citrus looks bright and full colored. But it also feels heavy for its size and firm when squeezed. A fully ripe orange or lemon will slip easily off its stem without tugging. To pick, gently twist and pull at the same time.

The best way to judge ripeness is by tasting. Pick fruit from opposite sides of the tree and sample. Fruit growing on the outside of the tree tends to ripen faster than fruit that grows closer to the trunk. If the trial oranges taste sweet, the tree is ready to pick. If not, wait a week, then sample again.

The best place to store ripe citrus? Leave it on the tree. Unless there’s a bad frost, it will stay fresh and firm until ready for use—or until the tree drops the fruit to make room for more.