Tangerine trees flower and produce an edible fruit. Tangerines belong to the genus Citrus reticulata in the Rutaceae plant family. Although some people use the names mandarin or satsuma interchangeably with tangerine, when people within the citrus trade refer to tangerines, they usually mean only fruit with a red-orange skin. Scientists categorize mandarins, tangerines and satsuma as three separate classes of trees within the genus Citrus reticulata. It takes a while for a tree to bear fruit, but when it does, tangerine fruit has a thin, loose, leathery skin easily peeled and sections that come apart easily.
As with other citrus trees, nurseries and garden supply stores sell tangerine trees in containers or with their roots in a ball wrapped in burlap. Although you have to wait to pick your very first tangerine, you do not have to wait too long. Most will start bearing small quantities of fruit the year after you plant the tree; this is especially true with tangerine trees sold in containers. In addition, you can leave the tangerine tree in a container to grow it.
Although tangerine trees begin to bear some fruit in the first year after planting, the tangerines do not ripen very early in the year. The earliest tangerine varieties ripen in October, while the latest ripen in January to February. Regular tangerine trees include the early Clementine, which requires cross-pollination, and the mid-season, self-fruitful Dancy and Ponkan varieties. Hybrid tangerine varieties include the self-fruitful early season Lee and cross-pollinating varieties such as the early Robinson and Sunburst and the mid-season Nova, Page and Osceola tangerines and the Orlando tangelos.
In addition to not producing much fruit in the first year after planting, those first tangerines are rather poor quality. In fact, tangerine trees do not begin producing significant crops of fruit until the fourth growing season, according to the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. In that fourth year, the quality of the tangerines will also be high. Compared to a sweet orange, tangerines have a flattened shape and they are small, about 2 to 4 inches in diameter.
Tangerine trees are only native to Florida and Puerto Rico in the United States. But you can grow them outside in other areas of the country with similar climates, including USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 8B to 11, or safely elsewhere in containers you bring inside during freezing weather. Tangerine trees are more cold tolerant than sweet orange trees, but the fruit is not and cannot withstand freezing temperatures. That is a factor to keep in mind since the earliest tangerine varieties do not ripen until October.