The chinotto plant is a small citrus tree from which the fruit for the eponymous refreshing drink is derived. It’s a very interesting plant as an ornamental, making it perfect for cultivation in a mixed family orchard. Its climatic needs are the same as the lemon tree, but it can be grown in various Italian regions. Chinottos are very bitter fruits, not suitable for fresh consumption, but they are exceptional when transformed in various ways.
In this article, we will learn more about the characteristics of the tree and the properties of the fruits. Additionally, we will discover the origins of the plant and the right techniques for healthy and lush cultivation.
The chinotto, scientific name Citrus myrtifolia, is a citrus species of the Rutaceae family, Citrus genus. Its origins are debated, as there are no certain ethnobotanical data. According to some scholars, it would originate from China (from which its common name is derived), as there is a tree with similar characteristics that grows spontaneously there. From China, it would have spread to the West, following commercial exchanges between the 1500s and 1600s.
According to other authors, chinotto is native to the Mediterranean, having spread following a natural hybridization of the bitter orange. In Europe, it gained great popularity between the 17th and 18th centuries, where it was cultivated in France, Spain, and southern Italy. During the Belle Époque, it was consumed alongside absinthe, a use that gradually faded. In Italy, it has always been used to prepare drinks and syrups, a tradition that is still alive today.
Today, it is cultivated almost exclusively in Italy, particularly in Liguria, Tuscany, Calabria, and Sicily.
What is Chinotto?
The chinotto is a tree that can reach a maximum height of 3 meters. It has a dense crown, formed by small branches, with short internodes, giving it a natural globe-like appearance. It’s very elegant, which is why chinotto is often grown as an ornamental plant. Moreover, it’s the only citrus species that doesn’t have large thorns on its branches, so it’s also pleasant to touch. The young branches sometimes appear bare, with leaves at the end of the branch.
The leaves, compared to other citrus trees, are smaller. They have a pointed shape, dark green color, and leathery texture.
They look very similar to those of the myrtle, hence the species epithet myrtifolia. The flowers of the chinotto are truly beautiful, small and white, with a fleshy appearance. They emit a sweet and surprising scent of orange blossom.
The chinotto plant’s flowering is abundant and occurs between April and June. Being a re-flowering species, there can be other flowering moments, especially if the climatic conditions allow it. Flowerings subsequent to the main one are less intense.
The fruits of the chinotto plant
The fruits of the chinotto are called chinottos and are smaller in size compared to general citrus fruits. In size, they are similar to Calabrian clementines. The shape is round, more flattened at the poles. The color ranges from light orange to a darker shade when fully ripe. A peculiar characteristic of this citrus is its long persistence on the plant. Maturation is slow and can last up to a year. For this reason, it’s not uncommon to find newly blossomed flowers, immature fruits, and others ready for harvest on the same plant.
How to cultivate a chinotto plant
Winter cold is a problem for those who want to cultivate chinotto, as is the case for anyone wanting to cultivate any citrus. A chinotto tree tolerates occasional frosts well, but suffers from prolonged periods with temperatures below -5 °C. So, an occasional frost won’t kill the plant, but persistent temperature drops put it at significant risk. If you decide to cultivate chinotto, you should evaluate the average temperatures of your area. As a reference, if lemon cultivation thrives, there should be no problems with chinotto either. Another consideration is that a chinotto plant doesn’t grow very large, so it’s perfect for pot cultivation.
This type of cultivation mitigates potential cold-related problems, thanks to the possibility of moving the pot to a more sheltered location and protecting it with frost nets like this one. Regarding exposure in the family orchard, the chinotto tree prefers full sun or partial shade. Completely shaded locations should be avoided: you’ll have stunted growth and little chance of fruiting. In summary, to cultivate chinotto you need to:
- Plant it leaving 3 meters between one plant and another,
- Use a loose soil with a neutral pH,
- Fertilize it annually,
- Water it in the early years and during long drought periods,
- Organize biological pest control against leaf miners, scale insects, and red spider mites, its main pests.
How to reproduce the chinotto tree
The chinotto plant is propagated by grafting and can be purchased from the best nurseries that deal with citrus plants.
Be very careful to look for certified plants, free from the notorious Citrus Tristeza Virus.
The rootstocks used for chinotto are the classic bitter orange (Citrus aurantium) and the trifoliate orange (Poncirus trifoliata). For pot cultivation, the trifoliate orange is more commonly used, as it has a “dwarfing” effect, keeping the plants smaller.
How to plant a chinotto tree
The best time for planting a chinotto plant is the beginning of spring. The guidelines to follow are the general ones, valid for planting fruit trees. The planting layout to consider for the chinotto tree shouldn’t be very wide. The plant grows very slowly and doesn’t reach large sizes. The planting layout can be relatively narrow, leaving 3 m between one plant and another. Also, longevity isn’t chinotto’s strong point; it’s a species that doesn’t live beyond 60 years.
Soil and fertilization
Chinotto is quite demanding in terms of soil. The pH should be neutral or slightly acidic, and the ideal structure is a loose soil with a good supply of organic matter. Avoid soils that are too clayey and heavy, which can cause water stagnation.
Annually, it’s good to carry out organic fertilization, amending the soil with specific fertilizers for citrus. Good results are obtained with ground lupins. The best time for fertilization is the end of winter.
How to water the chinotto tree
The correct irrigation of a chinotto plant varies depending on whether it’s grown in a pot or in the ground. A tree grown in a pot requires more attention in terms of water. Ensure that the soil clod doesn’t dry out completely. A plant grown in the ground, on the other hand, has fewer water needs. Water should only be given to the plant after long drought periods. Obviously, more attention is required in the early years.
How to prune the chinotto tree
Being a plant with moderate growth, pruning interventions on chinotto are quite limited. Following the general pruning rules, you can prune at the end of winter, removing only the older or damaged branches. Observe the plant and remove branches that cross each other. Airing the crown is very important to avoid fungal disease problems.
Biological defense against pests
The pests of the chinotto plant are typical of citrus, namely:
- Citrus leaf miner;
- Cottony citrus scale;
- Red spider mite.
In the related in-depth articles, you’ll find all the tips to protect your plants organically, without using chemical pesticides.
Properties of the chinotto plant
The beneficial properties of chinotto are still largely to be studied. There aren’t many scientific publications, but the studies carried out are very encouraging. Above all, it’s worth noting the excellent anti-inflammatory capacity of this fruit, thanks to the substances contained especially in its essential oil. Furthermore, being loaded, like all citrus fruits, with vitamin C, it proves useful in various circumstances:
- Strengthens the immune defenses,
- Maintains collagen activity, with related benefits for skin, bones, joints, cartilage, teeth, gums, and capillaries,
- Is an antioxidant, thus counteracting the action of free radicals and the aging process,
- Combats fatigue and muscle fatigue,
- Helps to better assimilate iron, thus being a great help in cases of anemia.
Culinary uses of the chinotto plant
The pulp of the chinotto is full of seeds, so the fruits aren’t ideal for fresh consumption.
Their most famous use is in processing. Everyone knows the famous dark-colored drink named after it. Not everyone likes it, but it’s characteristic for its bitter and very refreshing taste. Here you can find several variants. At home, chinottos can be processed in many ways, from tasty syrups to jams or candied fruits. All simple preparations that will allow you to fully enjoy this unique fruit.