- Author: Ben Faber
It has been a struggle to get through these hot times and now it's getting cooler, it's even 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.