It has been a struggle to get through the summer this year. Weird. Hot. Then fog in August. Hot. Then fog in October. It's supposed to be clear,, blue skies in October. perfect weather for avocado persea mite and citrus leaf miner. Hot times then cooler. How to irrigate? A lot of folks just decided not to irrigate. Why do it when it's so crazy? Forecast was for no rain, but it's cool. And then it rained, and suddenly that beautiful citrus that has just broken color and is an orange globe, splits. It's most common in navels, but all citrus that ripen in the fall – tight-skinned satsuma mandarins, early clementines, tangelos and blood oranges. With the hot summer, it seems that a lot of citrus fruit have accelerated their maturity and are ready, ripe and sweet right now, and maybe ready to split.
And that's the problem. Drought stress. Salt stress due to drought. Water stress due to miserly watering. A heat wave in July. And a weird fall with maybe rain and maybe no rain and is ¼ inch considered rain or just a dedusting? Irregular watering is the key to splitting this time of year. The sugar builds, the pressure to suck in water builds and the fruit has been held back by a constrained water pattern and suddenly some water comes and it goes straight to the fruit and Boom, it splits.
Years of drought, and a stressed tree are a perfect set up for a citrus splitting in fall varieties like navel and satsuma. The days have turned cooler and there's less sense on the part of the irrigator to give the tree water and suddenly out of nowhere, there is rain. That wonderful stuff comes down and all seems right with the world, but then you notice that the mandarin fruit are splitting. Rats? Nope, a dehydrated fruit that has taken on more water than its skin can take in and the fruit splits. This is called an abiotic disorder or disease. However, it's not really a disease, but a problem brought on by environmental conditions. Or poor watering practices.
Fruit that is not yet ripe, like ‘Valencias' and later maturing mandarins are fine because they haven't developed the sugar content and have a firmer skin. They then develop during the rainy season when soil moisture is more regular. Or used to be more regular. With dry, warm winters this may become more or a problem in these later varieties, as well.
Several factors contribute to fruit splitting. Studies indicate that changes in weather, including temperature, relative humidity and wind may exaggerate splitting. The amount of water in the tree changes due to the weather condition, which causes the fruit to shrink. Then with rewetting, the fruit swells and bursts. In the navel orange, it usually occurs at the weakest spot, which is the navel. In other fruit, like blood orange, it can occur as a side split, as seen in the photo below.
Proper irrigation and other cultural practices can help reduce fruit spitting. Maintaining adequate but not excessive soil moisture is very important. A large area of soil around a tree should be watered since roots normally grow somewhat beyond the edge of the canopy. Wet the soil to a depth of at least 2 feet, then allow it to become somewhat dry in the top few inches before irrigating again. Applying a layer of coarse organic mulch under the canopy beginning at least a foot from the trunk can help moderate soil moisture and soil temperature variation.
Once split, the fruit is not going to recover. It's best to get it off the tree so that it doesn't rot and encourage rodents.
(Photo by Ottillia “Toots” Bier, UCR)
There have been some complaints about satsuma mandarin fruit having problems. These are prone to a rind/skin/peel breakdown when the fruit is not picked promptly. It's not clear what the cause is - wet winter, warm winter - but it is less of a problem if the fruit is picked when it is mature. A lot of the time in southern California, satsumas will develop good flavor and sweetness, but for lack of cool weather, they don't turn bright orange, a hallmark of the fruit. So growers will leave the fruit on longer, hoping for color, but the fruit becomes over mature, and more susceptible to breakdown. This weakening of the peel then opens it up to infection by fungi, such as Alternaria. In warm winters, the peel matures more rapidly and is more susceptible. Early maturing varieties like ‘Okitsuwase' are especially prone to breakdown later in the season, since their rind matures earlier. They end up being a mess, as can be seen in the photo below.
Navels can have a similar problem in these winters with erratic rainfall. Common wisdom is you don't irrigate in the winter, right? Wrong. With no, low and widely spaced rain events, the tree roots dry out, and rewet with rain. Navels are building their sugar in the winter and they become suction balls for water as the sugar increases. The fruit will continue to grow as the tree takes up water. When the roots run out of water, and then are suddenly rewetted during this period, the fruit can suck up water so rapidly that the skin cant expand fast enough and will split. So this is what happens with uneven irrigation or rainfall this time of year. One of those abiotic problems in citrus.
There was a lot of odd looking, water-soaked Satsuma fruit showing up this year along the coast. It was showing up as late as March since fruit can hang so much longer along the coast than the Central Valley and hotter areas. It turns out its an abiotic issue and is more associated with the cooler, coastal environment. Recently a "Gold Nugget" mandarin came in that had a very similar look to the rind. This variety doesn't have immediate satsuma parentage, but who knows what is in its past. The disorder is most commonly associated with cool, foggy or rainy conditions. In the fall we had those conditions and maybe that's what set it off. Later, secondary fungi move in to colonize, the depressions that first occur.