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Pulp Non-Fiction: The History of the Pixie Tangerine

There are countless varieties of tangerines, but Ojai locals are the first to say that not all of them are created equal: to them, the Valley’s native Pixie Tangerine reigns supreme. This year, residents are celebrating the harvest by marking April as the first ever Ojai Pixie Month, meaning Pixies (in one form or another) are making their way onto the menus of local restaurants, day spas and hotels.

While choosing a favorite type of tangerine may seem pretty categorical, reserved for those of us with the worst OCD, the Pixie isn’t just any tangerine. It has a uniquely steep history in the Ojai Valley that dates back to the 1920s, when the University of California, Riverside’s Citrus Research Center conducted a breeding experiment. “UC Riverside is a powerhouse,” says Emily Ayala, owner of Friend’s Ranches and an early grower of Pixies. “They are really behind coming up with a lot of different citrus varieties.” The investigation played with new tangerine breeds created from the open pollination of a Kincy Tangerine, a cross between Mandarin Oranges and Dancy Tangerines. The result: a lumpy, dull-orange fruit. It wasn’t pretty, and researchers were sure that the Pixies had no consumer value and weren’t worth growing.

But, while the peel may be unappealing, the fruit inside is anything but. Simply put, Pixies are incredibly delicious. They are unusually low in acidity, making them particularly sweet, and they are naturally seedless. Even if cross-pollenated, they will never bear a seed. And, chefs have fallen for their unique durability. “The Pixie can really hold up to a lot of heat,” Susan L. Coulter, Executive Chef of Feast Bistro, says. She uses the fruit to make tons of seasonal dishes, a list that includes Pixie flatbread—a local favorite—and a shrimp salad tossed in Pixie vinaigrette. 

Today, Pixies grow almost exclusively in the Ojai Valley, but convincing chefs and consumers to take that first bite took some time. After the UCR Citrus Research Center packed up in the ‘20s, Pixies weren’t sold commercially until the 1960s when Frank Noyes decided to plant a few trees on his farm. Noyes hired Elmer Friend, Ayala’s grandfather, to pick and pack the Pixies, and eventually—after a few mid-field tastings—Friend planted his own Pixie trees.

Friend remained one of the only Pixie growers in Ojai until the 1990s, when a virus starting wiping out the area’s other most popular crop, the avocado, and farmers were looking for alternatives. One farmer, Jim Churchill, came to Friend’s Ranches and had a bite of his first Pixie. He was immediately won over. Before long, two other farmers planted Pixie trees on their land and the four farmers together formed the Ojai Pixie Growers Association to sell and distribute the Pixie nationwide, which they have done very successfully. “The citrus community is really kind to us; they let us have the Pixie,” says Churchill. “Anyone can grow it, but of course it grows the best here.”

He’s not exaggerating. The Ojai Valley has a Mediterranean-like microclimate and a mountain range that runs east-to-west, rather than the typical north-to-south, allowing sunlight to hit the Valley floor and its crops nearly the full length of the day. Translation: it is a prime place for cultivating Pixies.

Now, 42 local Ojai farms grow Pixie Tangerines, and they are distributed to stores throughout the world—with some farms shipping as far as Japan. Luckily for us, we can get them direct from the grower. Friend’s farm sells its handpicked, fresh Pixies at four farmers' markets a week—Ojai, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica and Hollywood—during Pixie season, which runs late March through early June every year. Or, they’ll ship them to your home immediately after plucking them off the tree.

Then again, you could really immerse yourself in the Pixie culture and make the short jaunt up to Ojai, where this month in particular, Pixie fever is especially prevalent.