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Japanese Bitter Orange
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Japanese Bitter oranges grow on deciduous trees, meaning the leaves fall off seasonally, a characteristic that sets it apart from other citrus varieties. The trees are known for their intertwined branches that are adorned with long sharp thorns. Japanese Bitter oranges are round and small, roughly 4 to 5 centimeters in diameter. They have a downy exterior and turn from green to yellow orange when ripe. The inner flesh of the Japanese Bitter orange is not very juicy and has a bitter, sour lemon flavor with Earl Grey nuances. After a 2-week storage period, the citrus will become juicier.
Japanese Bitter oranges are available in the late winter and through early spring.
Japanese Bitter orange is botanically different from other citrus varieties and is not considered a “true citrus”. Scientifically classified as Poncirus trifoliata and sometimes Citrus triptera, Japanese Bitter orange is more commonly known as Hardy orange or Trifoliate orange, or by the cultivated variety name ‘Flying Dragon’. It is one of the very few cold-hardy orange varieties, suited for colder climates. They are distinctive for the fruit’s slightly fuzzy skin and extremely bitter juice, and the tree’s thorny branches. Favored for its hardiness, Japanese Bitter orange may be the oldest variety of rootstock still being used by the citrus industry today.
Japanese Bitter orange juice is often used as a health tonic due to its nutritional value. High in vitamin C and flavonoids, Japanese Bitter oranges also contain calcium, phosphate, vitamin A and thiamine. Studies on the juice demonstrate anti-anaphylactic and anti-hystamine properties.
Like the Seville orange, the exceptionally tart juice of the Japanese Bitter orange makes it generally less desirable for use as a fresh eating orange. Its rind can be candied or dried. It also makes an excellent orange for use in making marmalade. The rind and juice of the Japanese Bitter orange can be utilized in juices and cocktails. The zest can be used in jams, dressings and sauces. When dried the rind can be made into a powder and used as a seasoning. Store Japanese Bitter oranges on the counter for up to two weeks and up to a month in the refrigerator.
The Japanese Bitter orange was popularly used to make jams and jellies by early American colonists due to the natural pectin the orange contains. The bitter citrus is important in Japan as the primary rootstock for satsuma mandarins, the country’s main export. It has long been used in Chinese medicine as a treatment of typhoid, colds, toothache, conjunctivitis and itchy skin.
According to botanists, Japanese Bitter oranges have their origin in Northern and Central China and Korea. The fruits were discovered growing in Japan sometime before the 8th century, though record of them doesn’t appear until the early 18th century. The Flying Dragon cultivar was introduced to the United States in 1915. The bitter orange tree can be found growing throughout the Northern and Eastern states, where it tolerates the colder winter temperatures. Japanese Bitter orange trees are planted as ornamentals and as natural fencing and wildlife deterrent thanks to its multiple thorny branches. Because of its hardiness and resistance to many diseases, P. trifoliata was used as the parent fruit for several hybrid crosses with Citrus varieties. Some of the resulting cultivars are the sweet orange hybrid ‘citrange’, and the hardy grapefruit hybrid, ‘citrumelo’. Bitter oranges are typically found in Japan, Korea and Northern China. Outside of Southeastern Asia, Japanese Bitter oranges are more commonly found in home gardens.