Citrus fruit have been grown in New Zealand since 1819, when oranges were planted at Kerikeri by the missionary settler Charlotte Kemp. By the middle of the 19th century, there were commercial citrus orchards in Northland and Bay of Plenty. New Zealand’s climate, with its temperate summers and cold winters, is marginal for most citrus, so they are usually grafted onto hardy rootstocks.
Citrus species originate from South-East Asia. They hybridise readily and there are numerous cultivated forms. The main species grown in New Zealand – mandarins (Citrus reticulata and C. unshiu), lemons (C. limon) and oranges (C. sinensis) – are evergreen trees.
New Zealand’s citrus industry is small, accounting for just 0.03% of the world’s citrus production. It covers some 2,000 hectares, with 400 orchards in Northland, Gisborne and Bay of Plenty. In 2006, citrus fruit exports were worth more than NZ$4.5 million (including lemons $2.5 million, mandarins $1.6 million, and oranges $385,000). In addition, $700,000 worth of processed citrus products was exported. In 2006, New Zealand citrus growers gained access to the US and European Union markets.
New Zealand grows both satsuma (C. unshiu) and clementine (C. reticulata) mandarins. Satsuma mandarins are harvested between mid-April and late August. The main export market is Japan. Encore – a summer-fruiting variety – is grown for local consumption.
Yen Ben is the lemon variety grown for export, mainly to Japan. In 2006, it was New Zealand’s main citrus export, surpassing mandarins (which had dominated citrus exports for the previous 10 years). A smooth-skinned lemon with a thin rind, Yen Ben was introduced to New Zealand in the 1970s, and is harvested year-round.
Meyer lemons are popular with home gardeners, and grow in cool climates. They are hybrids, probably of a lemon and an orange. A small number are sent to Japan.
Navel oranges are the main orange crop, grown primarily for fresh local consumption. Most are grown in Gisborne and harvested between June and October. A small number are exported: South Korea took 23 tonnes in 2005 and 2006. Valencia oranges are also grown and processed into juice.
Seminole tangelos, a mandarin–grapefruit hybrid, were first grown in New Zealand in the 1950s. Initially popular with growers, tangelos were extensively planted in the 1960s. But they succumbed to a fungal disease, and plantings declined from 766 hectares in 1982 to 163 hectares in 2002.
New Zealand grapefruit
New Zealand’s climate is too cool for growing true grapefruit (Citrus paradisi). The fruit grown in New Zealand – variously called poorman’s orange, New Zealand grapefruit, and goldfruit – is a hybrid of unknown origins. Sir George Grey imported the parent plant to New Zealand in 1855, and it was propagated and planted around Auckland and Northland. Plant breeders selected high-producing strains of the original stock.
The Morrison’s seedless variety was popular for decades, but since the 1970s Golden Special has been the most common variety. There was a steady decline in New Zealand grapefruit cultivation, from 510 hectares in 1982 to 82 hectares in 2002, as growers changed to more commercial citrus crops.