the descent
orangerie II

orangerie I

Refugee Boys Eat Tangerines

- by Ruth L. Schwartz -

It was a flower once, it was one of a billion flowers
whose perfume broke through closed car windows,
forced a blessing on their drivers.
Then what stayed behind grew swollen, as we do;
grew juice instead of tears, and small hard sour seeds,
each one bitter, as we are, and filled with possibility.
Now a hole opens up in its skin, where it was torn from the
branch; ripeness can’t stop itself, breathes out;
we can’t stop it either. We breathe in.

From Dear Good Naked Morning, Autumn House Press, 2005. First printed in Crab Orchard Review, Vol. 8, No. 2.

This is orange-eating time of year.  I love all sorts of oranges: the great, thick white pith inside the rind of the navel orange, the juicy blood oranges with their mottled skins and shocking flesh.  The oh-so-average but useful Valencia, the tart clementines, satsumas, minneolas, and kumquats.  Frankly I love them all.  I even love the fake ones.  There's nothing more cheerful than a big jar of Tang except a big jar of my mother's spiced tea mix, made with Tang, instant tea, cinnamon, and all sorts of motherly secrets. 

But my favorite orange, maybe even my favorite fruit of all, is the tangerine.  I'll start by admitting that when I was a little kid, I thought Tangerine would just be the coolest name ever for a girl and I desperately wished it was mine. (Tangerine or Cinnamon, I went back and forth between those.)  Since it was too late for that, I wrote many stories about my heroine Tangerine and her adventures as a resourceful orphan.  Later, I found Tangerine on the magnificent album Led Zeppelin III and it was one of the first songs I learned to play on a guitar, further cementing my devotion to Jimmy Page.  LziiiNow, after all these years, I'm finally getting to the bottom of the fruit version.

Let's see if I can get the etymology right. The Citrus reticulata tree brings forth fruit which we know by a variety of names; among them "mandarin," "clementine," and "tangerine."  Actually all of these are mandarins, but clementine, tangerine, satsuma, and other classifications indicate subtypes of this same fruit.  So, being basically the same thing, I wondered, how are they different, and how are they different in perfumes?  Are they different enough for me even to care?  To that end, I sent off for a variety of essential oils and absolutes: mandarin and tangerine (Citrus reticulata), sweet orange (Citrus sinensis), bitter orange , orange blossom absolute, petitgrain (all from Citrus aurantium), and tangor (Citrus nobili).  To make a long story short, I'm not more an expert on citrus oils than when I started, but I did discover some interesting differences and characteristics.

A wonderful perfumer in England once sent me a small aluminum bottle filled with mandarin emulsion from Capua that I have loved for the sake of having it but never quite knew what to do with.  Recently, though, I've been playing with blends of aromatics and bottling my own attempts at perfume.  It was in the pursuit of a project called "Morning Light" that I came face to face with the power of mandarin, namely, that just one drop too much can completely overwhelm a blend and send it off into breakfastland.  After toning down and scaling back, I felt like I had learned something significant about perfumery.  Somewhat dry and with a big citrus punch, both the Capuan mandarin and the small control bottle I ordered later have a big, bright aroma.  Not subtle, but also not without charm.  Of all the citrus oils I've tried, mandarin lasts the longest into the drydown. 

Tangerines By far my favorite, and by far the strangest straight out of the bottle, is the tangerine oil.  I do not know why this is the case, but it has a unique aroma, a distinctly sweet and tart and yet slightly complex flavor that both makes my mouth water and makes me wonder why it smells like more than oranges.  It almost has a honeyed undertone, perhaps even slightly floral or waxy.  It smells fresh, both cold and warm at the same time, and intriguing more than beautiful.  I now finally understand why Mandy Aftel calls tangerine an "infinitely better choice for perfumery than mandarin."  (Essence and Alchemy, 2001, p. 123)  It is a beautiful raw material and is not prohibitively expensive, although the scent lasted only about an hour on my skin undiluted.  It is a true top note and will introduce you to a perfume but will not see you to the exit.

Among the fragrances that include tangerine are:

Regarding the poem "Tangerine," former U. S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser said "poet Ruth L. Schwartz writes of the glimpse of possibility, of something sweeter than what we already have that comes to us, grows in us. The unrealizable part of it causes bitterness; the other opens outward, the cycle complete. This is both a poem about a tangerine and about more than that." (American Life in Poetry, Column 54)

It may seem a little late in the year to wear bright, mouthwatering concoctions full of tangerine but I, for one, can use a little extra sunshine this time of year.  In the dark months it seems easier to focus on the bitterness of seeds rather than the possibilities they symbolize. These poems, these fragrances, all these things remind me to breathe. Breathe now.


(Thank you, Lynn, for your sharp eye and your helpful suggestion!)


Image: "Refugee Boys Eating Tangerines at a Small Refugee Camp," artist unknown, via

"Basket of Tangerines," by Simon Watson at Jupiter Images

Poem: "Tangerine" by Ruth L. Schwartz, from Dear Good Naked Morning, Autumn House Press, 2005. First printed in Crab Orchard Review, Vol. 8, No. 2.  Also available online at: American Life in Poetry

Posts prior to 2015 first appeared on my previous website, memory & desire (