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If there is a single type of houseplant that defines our modern era, it is the hardy, adorable succulent. Of course it is. Succulents and cacti are hard to kill and look great on Instagram, making them the perfect match for the busy and socially self-conscious. (Everyone I know!) But there’s room for more than one type of plant in our hearts and egos, so the fiddle leaf fig, grandiose and finicky, became a kind of status symbol in boutiques, startup offices, and apartments throughout Brooklyn.
Now there’s another plant inching its way into the design community: the clementine tree and its fruit.
In February, the simple, extremely chic knitwear brand Hesperios opened a store/cafe in New York’s SoHo neighborhood and installed a clementine tree right by the front door. Its dark green leaves and bright orange fruit nicely complement the shop’s white brick walls, white shelves, and white marble tables. That same month, Mansur Gavriel dressed up its New York Fashion Week runway with a row of the trees, adding a jolt of life to an industrial space.
Downtown brands like Lisa Says Gah and Maryam Nassir Zadeh frequently use the little citruses (are they clementines? Tangerines? What is the difference?) to accessorize string grocery bags and clear plastic totes. Anthropologie loves to style its home goods with oranges that still have their leaves attached. More leaves, more chic.
An easy explanation for the presence of so many clementines is that they’re in season this time of year. You can pick up a box of them from the grocery store, use a few for your photo shoot, and eat the rest. Clothing brands love a still life with fruit, and citruses are just one version of that theme.
Clementine trees are not as convenient — you have to go all the way to the flower district to buy one, and then you have to keep it alive — but they dress up a minimalist space nicely. They’re also not a fiddle leaf fig. I know it’s ridiculous to say that a plant, of all things, is out, but if people are looking for a fresh look, clementine trees take all the best aesthetic qualities of the fiddle leaf fig (its extravagance, its rich color) and pump them up to a 10. Plus, a fruit-bearing tree gives the impression of generosity and nourishment, which, for a woman-run business operating under the Trump administration (like Hesperios and Mansur Gavriel), feels, I don’t know ... apt?
Finally, at this dreary time of year, there are few foods as uplifting as the orange. I’ve been obsessed with them all winter. They’re like an automatic air freshener when I crack a few clementines every afternoon at work, and I usually pick up an orange from a bodega on the way home. I recently subscribed to a newsletter just because the author wrote a lovely little piece about eating blood oranges in the shower (it’s a thing, look it up). I assume my body is craving vitamin C because it’s trying not to get sick, but also, oranges taste like sunshine and that makes me happy. Come on, spring! Come on!!!
I am not a citrus expert, so I emailed journalist and produce enthusiast Dan Nosowitz, who has written several explainers of clementines and their orange cousins for Modern Farmer, to get his take on this low-grade phenomenon. Here’s what he had to say.
First of all, what’s the difference between a tangerine and a clementine?
So the basic understanding of citrus right now is that there are three parent fruits — the mandarin, pomelo, and citron — and the entire range of citrus as we know it today is just cross-breeding and re-cross-breeding for thousands of years. The entire system of citrus is sort of a mess, to be honest; there aren’t, like, legal definitions of tangerine or clementine or satsuma or mandarin or any of this stuff. And then, of course, there are different cultivars of clementines and tangerines and every other citrus. Tangerines, clementines, and satsumas are all pretty similar to the mandarin; I doubt anyone would really be able to pick out which one is which.
For a few years now, the fiddle leaf fig has been the design world’s plant of choice, even though they’re notoriously hard to keep alive. Do you think a citrus tree would be easier or harder to maintain in a commercial space?
I think it’d be harder, to be honest. The natural climate of most citrus plants is pretty hot, with a lot of sunlight. You can definitely grow citrus indoors, tons of people do, but it’s sort of finicky. You have to monitor its water levels really carefully, since it prefers dryish soil, and it has to be moved around a lot to snag as much sunlight as possible. It’s also, you know, a tree, so a lot of varieties would be pretty big and cumbersome.
Generally speaking, what’s so wonderful about clementines and tangerines?
Most of the mandarin derivatives are great. They’re really high in sugar content and not too acidic, super juicy, easy to peel, nice and small, and lots of commercial varieties are seedless. It’s a lot easier to deal with than, say, a navel orange.
How do you interpret the presence of a citrus tree or a few fruits in a fashion context?
I’m not totally sure; I think there are probably a few things going on. There’s the revived interest in houseplants, or at least in talking about houseplants, among people in their 20s and 30s. (I sort of suspect houseplants aren’t really more popular; they’re just more visible thanks to rampant self-branding.) Citrus has this semi-exotic feel to it; it only grows in a few particular places in the US. It’s also an approachable item. Everyone likes mandarins. And they’re small — and thus cute — and also vibrantly colored, which really makes them pop on a small screen like a phone.
When does winter citrus season end?
We’re coming up on the end now of clementine season now, although there are plenty of citrus varieties that grow all year round.