Special treats await those who tour the Citrus Variety Collection with Tracy L. Kahn (‘87 Ph.D.).
The 11th curator of UCR’s 89-year-old citrus museum, Kahn leads her visitors down the many rows of the grove adjacent to campus. Periodically she consults a notebook to determine which tree among the 1,720 she will take her visitor to next.
When she finds the one she’s looking for, she picks a ripe fruit and splits it with her knife, letting her guests sample the juicy slices. Here a visitor can taste for the first time the melt-in-your-mouth sweetness of the new Gold Nugget mandarin, released commercially in 1999. Or marvel at the bright red flesh and tanginess of the Moro blood orange, a Mediterranean favorite. Or see the odd Buddha’s Hand, properly known as the fingered citron, valued in Asia as a fragrant centerpiece.
“We have the most diverse collection in North America and one of the most diverse in the world, with 868 types of citrus and citrus relatives,” says Kahn. “A collection like this is especially valuable because citrus is disappearing from its native center of diversity under human encroachment into subtropical forests. Those countries simply don’t have the resources to preserve this genetic treasure. The collection, then, is not only valuable to California but to the citrus-producing countries of the world.”
Germplasm, or a collection of genetic diversity, is essential to research, including the development of new varieties, some of which aren’t meant to have disease resistance. A botanist who earned her doctorate from UCR in 1987, Kahn is also a researcher, using the collection to evaluate the commercial potential of new varieties.
That’s her official role.
Unofficially she’s a goodwill ambassador for citrus and UCR. Each year she leads about 200 scientists and dignitaries on tours of the groves. It’s rare for her to show up at meetings without bags of fruit. She and staff research associate, Ottillia “Toots” Bier, once packed 250 pounds of citrus into Samsonite luggage to take to a Capitol Exhibit for Congressmen and their aides.
Kahn and Bier also coordinate UCR’s popular citrus tasting booth at Riverside’s Orange Blossom Festival each spring. Last April, 20,000 people stood in lines in 95-degree temperature to get their citrus fix.
Imparting knowledge is part of her job, after all. Since becoming curator in 1995, she has held a joint appointment as a lecturer in the Department of Biology, where she has taught courses on cell biology, current problems in human biology, and the infamous “Dirty 30,” or Biology 30, “Human Reproduction and Sexual Behavior.”
“Teaching keeps me broad and current,” she says. “It helps me to make connections among various topics and issues.”
Still her passion is to ensure the continued vitality of the collection.
“Bill Bitters (professor of horticulture and curator, 1946-82) contributed significantly to the collection, making it a genetically diverse collection of international importance, but I hope I’m building on that.”
If she ever wonders why she works so hard in so many different ways, all it takes is a phone call to remind her.
“It is really exciting when growers call to ask for your data. I actually see people making decisions based on what we’re determining. I’ve learned to be conservative when talking to growers, but sharing our research with them gives me a sense of usefulness.”