The satsuma is a seedless and easy peeling citrus mutant of Chinese origin, but introduced to the West via Japan. In Japan and China it is known as the migan, the name meaning “honey citrus of wenzhou” in both languages. It is also often known as seedless mandarin. Clementines are not the same variety as the migan or satsuma.
The fruit is sweet and usually seedless, about the size of other mandarin oranges, smaller than an orange. One of the distinguishing features of the satsuma is the distinctive thin, leathery skin dotted with large and prominent oil glands, which is lightly attached around the fruit, enabling it to be peeled very easily in comparison to other citrus fruits. The satsuma also has particularly delicate flesh, which cannot withstand the effects of careless handling.
It originates from Wenzhou, a city in Zhejiang province in China. Recorded cultivation dates back some 2400 years. It was listed as a tribute item for imperial consumption in the Tang dynasty. It was introduced to Japan by a buddhist monk, who passed through Wenzhou on his way back from Wutai Mountain. This was further developed into new cultivars, with one mutation recorded as early as 1429.
In 1876 during the Meiji period, satsumas were brought to the United States from the Satsuma Province in Japan by a spouse of a member of the U.S. Embassy. While the species originates from Japan, it does not originate from the Satsuma Province in particular. The towns of Satsuma, Alabama, Satsuma, Florida and Satsuma, Louisiana were named after this fruit.
By 1920 Jackson County in the Florida Panhandle had billed itself as the “Satsuma Capital of the World,” however, the commercial industry was wiped out during a very cold period in the late 1930’s. However, it can been planted in cooler locations because of its cold hardiness and because colder weather will sweeten the fruit. A mature satsuma tree can survive down to 15°F for a few hours. Of the edible citrus varieties only the kumquat is more cold hardy.
Satsumas rarely have any thorns, an attribute that also makes them popular. They can be grown from seed, which takes about 8 years until the first fruits are produced, or grafted onto other citrus rootstocks, trifoliate orange being one of the most popular.
The uniquely loose skin of the satsuma means that any bruising and damage to the fruit may not be immediately apparent upon the typical cursory visual inspection associated with assessing the quality of other fruits. In this regard, the satsuma is often categorised by citrus growers as a hit and miss citrus fruit, the loose skin particular to the fruit precluding the definitive measurement of its quality by sight and feel alone.
The satsuma has also been grown in Japan since ancient times, and the majority of cultivars grown in China today were cultivated in Japan and reverse introduced into China during modern times.