Tom’s bitter orange a sweet thing
Posted: Wednesday, January 18, 2012 6:46 am
By: By Jimmy Williams
The Messenger 01.17.12
Tom Sinnema, who passed to his eternal reward a year or two ago, was a Dutchman with the seemingly inherent plant interest those people exhibit.
His adopted state of Tennessee and county of Henry is the better for Sinnema, who not only was generous with his plant knowledge but put his muscle where his mouth was in devoting many hours of volunteer service via the Master Gardeners program and other avenues.
I am one of many who have keepsakes from Sinnema’s garden. Mine is in the form of two orange trees, seedlings from Sinnema’s massive one. We’re not talking about one of those little tropical citrus houseplants that some people (not me) have success with.
Sinnema’s “orange” tree grew (still grows) in his front yard at his old home on Guthrie Road, the ancestral abode of his wife, Mary June. The preceding quotes are apropro.
It’s not really the citrus orange we are familiar with from Florida or California. It is, instead, Poncirus trifoliata, otherwise known as “hardy orange,” “bitter orange” or “mock orange.”
It is perfectly winter hardy in our climate; witness Tom Sinnema’s tree of many years’ standing.
The moniker “mock orange” has nothing to do with the flowering mockorange (one word) of the genus Philadelphus. This mock orange is so named because of its fruits, which look for all the world like tiny (quarter-size) oranges. They even smell like oranges. Try to eat one right off the tree, however, and you will notice the difference. Green persimmons, go home! Bitter orange, indeed. However, the juice (what there is of it after you get by the numerous seeds) can be made palatable by the addition of sugar (plenty of it).
The “mock orange” moniker derives from the sweet scent of the white flowers. They, too, resemble true orange blossoms in color and aroma, and the tree would be worth growing for that alone. But the “oranges” come on in late summer and hang until the leaves have fallen, their bright yellow-orange color carrying for a great distance.
Sinnema’s tree was fortuitously located near a Japanese persimmon, with darker orange delicious fruits 3 inches or more in diameter.
Bitter orange trees exhibit a contorted, twisted, picturesque branch structure that shines forth in winter when they are devoid of leaves, which, incidentally (or not so incidentally) often provide good yellow fall color.
The straight species will grow to some 10 feet or more, if unpruned, and about as wide. It is of easy culture, requiring only decent soil and a modicum of moisture.
A skillfully pruned-out bitter orange tree will make up into a smashing oriental- looking specimen that gives the impression of great age, even after only 10 years or so.
The pruning, however, can prove to be problematic. Vicious thorns are numerous and sharp as needles. Gauntlets would be required to prune a sizeable specimen if a single trunk (or three or five) is desired. By starting the pruning regimen at a young age, the gardener can alleviate the onus, since an opened-out structure enables him to access the few inner branches with less chance of a goring.
A dwarf form of the tree, “Flying Dragon,” is available on the Internet and, I fancy, would make an excellent bonsai. I see it as exceptionally laden with fruit.
The great plantsman Don Shadow has introduced a variegated form of bitter orange. I pine for one, but Shadow’s nursery is wholesale. Maybe I can induce one of our local retailers to order out some for all of us.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.