Of all preserves, marmalade is my favorite. I prefer the tang of marmalade on my morning toast with tea, and I prefer making it rather than purchasing it. The recipes are simple: fruit, juice, a LOT of sugar, and time for soaking to extract the pectin from the fruit to jell the marmalade. These recipes feel old-fashioned to me. Making them, I imagine a continuity with jam-preparers in the past, putting up the bounty of the harvest for later. I also like to give handmade gifts—knit items, jars of preserves, and this fits right in.
Given the movement to support local agriculture, I do feel a little guilty about my marmalade affection. Michigan grows lots of fruit: strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, apples, wonderful tart cherries, blueberries, and many more varieties. Michigan grows no citrus. While I do make some local preserves, I prefer a citrus marmalade over all others.
Seville oranges are the best for marmalade. They are also known as “sour” or “bitter” oranges and are the preferred fruit for English marmalades. Seville oranges are imperfectly round, a little knobbly. Their meat is a little washed out: yellow rather than the bright orange of the navel orange. And their juice is not as sweet. Their imperfection feels like a bonus to me: more wild, less engineered, somehow essentially “original orange”. Plus they make the best preserves. Their sour tang pairs well with the sugar in the preserve and their juice has a lovely, floral note.
They aren’t “eating oranges” and I have never seen them in a supermarket. For the last several years, I have ordered them from a grower in Florida. Yet this year, as I prepared for my holiday marmalade-making, I found nothing. My web searches turned up old pages on ecommerce sites that show Seville oranges as “unavailable.” The company where I have ordered them before replied to my note:
Thank you for your inquiry regarding Seville Oranges. Sadly, we lost the grove from which we harvested the Sevilles and no longer have this fruit available. I am not aware of an alternate Florida source for Sevilles.
Imperiled Florida citrus
My correspondent didn’t say, but the grove was probably lost to citrus greening. Citrus greening is a disease that has affected groves around the world, including Asia and South America.
The disease is caused by bacteria and transmitted via an insect. The bacteria Candidatus Liribacter asiaticus infects and damages the tree’s vascular system, specifically the phloem which transports sugar and minerals. Trees with phloem damage lessen their ability to feed their leaves and fruit. Leaves on infected trees will grow irregularly and look mottled. Leaves and twigs will die back at the ends of branches. Fruit will stay green, may be lopsided, and have underdeveloped seeds. Once infected, trees cannot recover and there is no cure. An insect, the Asian citrus psyllid, spreads the bacteria from infected to uninfected trees.
Infected trees were first found in Florida in 2005. Although farmers cut and burned infected trees, it spread anyway. More than just the Seville orange is at risk in Florida. According to the University of California, Davis, citrus greening has reduced orange production in Florida by seventy-five percent and grapefruit production by eighty-five percent.
My 2020 Florida marmalades
For now, if I wish, I can mail order Seville oranges from California, which is monitoring the spread of citrus greening in its groves. Somehow it seems momentous to switch to California, although I eat food grown in California all the time. This year, the citrus for my marmalades came via my nephew’s high school band fundraiser. He lives in Tennessee, the grower is in Florida.
Last week, I got a mixed box of grapefruit and oranges here in chilly Michigan. On one hand, it’s lovely to be connected across distance and isolation with my nephew. It’s also lovely to receive in-season fruit when Michigan fruit trees are bare. Yet, the movement of produce and plants at the heart of this transaction is challenging the survival of citrus groves worldwide. Although we associate Florida with citrus, oranges are thought to have originated in Asia, and the first Florida trees grew from seeds brought from Europe, such as the Seville orange from Spain. The transport of crops and commerce around the world accidentally moves diseases and parasites too. Then, crops in many places suffer from the same disease and may disappear. Citrus, a beloved global crop, is now declining in many places.
I made marmalade this weekend, two varieties: grapefruit-lemon and cranberry-orange. I did use Michigan cranberries.
A personal connection to the loss
When I eat a Florida orange, I connect with sitting at the kitchen table in my father’s Florida condo, squeezing out the last juice from of a grapefruit half. I recall the delicious combo of sugar and sour in a fresh navel orange. I connect the fruit with the place and the people I was with: my father and my grandfather foremost, as they are both gone now.
Losing Florida citrus, then, is a loss to me, after so many other losses. Writing this, I realize that connection to Florida memories is part why I make marmalade at the holidays. It’s also why I especially mourn the loss of “my” Seville orange grove in Florida.