Those Cute Little Clementines—and the Religious Brother Who Discovered Them

(photo: Image credit: “INRA DIST”, Clémentines Cl J Weber, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Don't you just love a clementine? The smooth, round fruits are sweet, seedless, easy to peel, and just the right size to tuck into a school lunchbox or grab as a quick snack.

But did you know that clementines were actually discovered in 1902 by a monk named Brother Clement?

Clément Rodier was born into a devout Catholic family on May 25, 1839 in the small village of Auvergne Malvieille, in the Puy-de-Dôme region of France, near a large dormant volcano of the same name. From the age of twelve, Clément felt a call to religious life. Twelve of Clément's relatives were monks or nuns; and he was at first attracted to the Chartreuse de Valbonne, where his uncle served as prior.

Clement's fragile health prevented him from entering the Carthusian Order, however; and so he followed another of his uncles, André Rodier, to join the Brothers of the Annunciation—making his perpetual vows on November 13, 1866. The Order of the Annunciation fell into oblivion after the death of its founder; and two years before his death, in 1903, Clément joined the Congregation of the Holy Spirit.

Brother Clément's life work was assisting in running an orphanage, where he tended the orphanage's citrus trees. There are two stories regarding the creation of the clementine:

In the first version, Brother Clément was responsible for the orphanage's nursery, which included 20 hectares (nearly 50 acres) planted with several hundred species of forest trees, fruit trees and ornamental varieties, and over 600 varieties of roses. He carefully recorded his experiments in notebooks; but unfortunately the notebooks were destroyed by rainfall and harsh climate.

Father Roger Tabard, general archivist for the Spiritan fathers, wrote of the experiments conducted or observed by Brother Clement,

“There was in the field, at the edge of Wadi Misseghin, an uncultivated tree that had grown there among thorns. It was not a mandarin or an orange tree: its redder fruit mandarins were delicious in flavor, and most had no glitches. This is what Brother Clement told the young Arab who had tasted it. Interested in these fruits, our arborist decided to transplant with grafts of the miraculous tree. The operation was successful. We then multiplied the grafts and the new tee was given the name of clementine.”

Father Tabard adds a second version, though, which explains that a young boy may have helped in the discovery:

“Another version is given by the son of an employee who lived in the nursery at the time of Clement F.... This boy would have followed the work of  bee train foraging: the bee goes from a bitter orange to a mandarin; what can come out of such a mixture of pollen? The brother tied a red ribbon to the flower of the mandarin and monitored production. He allowed the fruit to mature, made a seeding and got a clementine...”

The small fruits were originally called “Mandarinettes.” There were so many differences, though: It matured earlier than the mandarin, its fruit was sweeter, and it was easier to peel. It was determined that the new fruit deserved a name of its own; and at the urging of orphans who loved Brother Clément, the fruit was named “Clementine.”

Today 98% of French clementines are produced in eastern Corsica. In the U.S., they are grown predominantly in California, Texas and Alabama; although Americans benefit from imported fruits from Mexico and Asia.

In 2010, Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—founded by the Congregation of the Holy Spirit—named one of their campus buildings “Clement Hall” in honor of Brother Clément.

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