Ark of Taste
Citrus Tangerina v. Dancy
The first American tangerine was introduced to the market by the legendary citrus grower Col. Adam Dancy in 1867-1868. This acidic, richly flavored fruit immediately established a new category of citrus product in the United States - less tart than an orange, more complex and bright than a Pomelo, and not oversweet like the Chinese Sweet Orange then in fashion. Its compact size, easily peeled skin (it was called the zipper tangerine), and tendency to become ripe in mid-December made it a favorite holiday season treat. It became known in the twentieth century as the Christmas tangerine.
While most frequently shipped as fresh fruit for direct consumption, the Dancy Tangerine was the first mandarin category citrus fruit to be processed commercially into tangerine juice. Home growers of the Dancy Tangerine developed methods for canning and preserving the fruit. The most subtle and beautiful variety of preserve employed thin slices of the fruit suspended in syrup.
Grown from the seed of a Mandarin Orange planted on the property of N. H. Moragne at Palatka, Florida, Col. Dancy’s fruit (like many citrus trees grown from seed) produced fruit different in quality, configuration, and taste than that of its parent. Since the parent was thought to have been from Morocco, it bore the name the Morangne “tangierine” alluding to Tangiers. Dancy recognized the superlative quality, distributed cuttings to his circle of fellow growers in 1872. It became the first Florida citrus variety around which a breeding discipline was imposed. Orchards were grafted or budded, and the old seedling groves that had characterized Florida citrus plantations were abandoned because of Dancy’s innovations. In the 1870’s the Dancy Tangerine spread throughout Florida and Cumberland Island, Georgia. The twentieth century saw its expansion to Southern California and Arizona. For the first seven decades of the twentieth century, most of the tangerines grown and consumed in the United States were Dancy Tangerines. Its historical importance as a product was matched by its crucial role as breeding stock. It was crossed with either the Pomelo or Grapefruit to create most of the significant Tangelo varieties—Minneola, Orlando, Sampson, and Seminole. It was the parent of the Frua and Fortune Mandarin Oranges, the Dweet and Mency tangors, and the Ark of Taste Pixie Tangerine of the Ojai Valley.
Several factors began to mark the eclipse of the Dancy in the 1970s. Its thin delicate peel required careful handling. Mechanical harvesting was proscribed in a citrus world increasingly looking to industrial methods. Its penchant for alternate year bearing resulted in inconsistent yearly production. Although pruning could compensate for this to a certain extent, the natural cycle of bearing could not be entirely overcome. Fruit breeders during the twentieth century began developing varieties with greater resistance to pests, greater yield, and fruit uniformity than the Dancy. Large-scale growers abandoned Dancy groves for these newer varieties. They also chose sweeter tasting tangerines—The Honey particularly--banking on the public’s increasing addiction to sugars.
The Dancy Tangerine is vulnerable to Alternaria brown spot and a disease called greening, that severely threaten its survival. In 2012, no Dancy fruit was available on the market for the first time since 1874. While nurseries still sell young trees as a “door-yard” cultivar, the most historically significant and culturally resonant tangerine has vanished from the produce market.
It is through the efforts of a handful of dedicated professional and home orchardists that the Dancy tangerine, and its unique flavor, can be rescued from extinction.