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Kumquats inspire sweet childhood memories

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I was about 6 years old, living in a very small Southern town, when I met my first kumquat. My grandmother had received a lavish fruit basket, a gift from my uncle, who lived in a big city. The basket was a work of art. Clumps of dark-purple grapes nestled among perfectly shaped oranges, grapefruits, and apples. I noticed a small bunch of dark-green leaves with walnut-size golden fruit attached. "What're those?" I asked.

My grandmother's answer delighted me. Even at that age, I loved words, and the word she pronounced was an entirely new and exotic species. "Kumquats," she said. And plucking one off the stem, she handed it to me. "You eat the whole thing, peel and all."

I popped it into my mouth and sank my teeth into the soft peel and flesh. I squealed with delight. The peel was sweet; the fruit inside was tart. The combination set off a taste-bud explosion, an unexpected sensation created by something that could be one thing and another at the same time. I'd have eaten the whole bunch, if she had let me.

Many years later, as my husband and I prepared to move to Florida, I told him, "I'm going to plant an orange tree."

Last spring we visited a big nursery and looked at citrus trees. In my native South Carolina, no one grew oranges, lemons, limes, or grapefruit.

As we wandered along, selecting trees to plant, I encountered my childhood head-on. There, alongside the grapefruit trees, was a kumquat tree. Several small dark-green fruits had already formed. Among shiny green leaves were delicate white flowers, with a sweet scent similar to orange blossoms. This was good. I knew the tree was pollinated.

I decided right then that I'd become a grower of kumquats rather than oranges. After all, orange trees are a Florida landscape fixture. But I hadn't encountered a kumquat tree.

We took it home and planted it. As summer waned, I wanted to know more. Where did kumquats originate? Could I use them in recipes?

I searched the Internet and found the website of Kumquat Growers Inc. The president, Frank Gude, told me that kumquats are believed to be native to China. There are nine commercial growers in Florida, so the US industry is small. Only about 45 acres are devoted to cultivation.

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