The Algerian origins of the clementine: a sweet story

It is a story that is rooted in Christian/Islamic dialogue in the Magreb.

The Clementine (Citrus reticulata x Citrus auratium) is a small citrus fruit of the Rutaceae family, which includes various species. It is likely that it is a hybrid of the tangerine, which is also known as Chinese mandarin (Citrus reticulata) and a Seville orange (Citrus auratium). The sweet treat, which in simpler times was a very welcome Christmas gift for some, bears its name in honor of its putative discoverer, Brother Marie-Clément Rodier, a missionary Catholic priest who once served in Algeria.
 
Baptized with the name Vital Rodier in 1839, he was born in Malveville, near Chambon-sur-Dolore in the Auvergne region of France. He left his home at the tender age of 13 to pursue a vocation to the monastic life in the strict Carthusian order. His fragile health did not permit him to continue at the Valbonne charterhouse, so he then joined the Brothers of the Annunciation.  The young missionary went to Algeria, which was then under French rule, to follow his uncle, Andre Rodier, who was leading a community of the Brothers in Misserghin, a small town located about 15 miles southwest of the coastal city, Oran. It was there that the Brothers had established an orphanage in 1849.
 
Located on a farm, the orphanage had workshops were the Brothers labored and also taught trades to their young charges. It was there that Vital Rodier was professed initial vows as a member of the Brothers in 1859, while it was in 1866 that he took his final vows as a priest. 
 
While he did not have formal training as a horticulturalist, Brother Marie-Clément had learned from his family how to care for trees and plants. At the orphanage, the young priest took care of the garden and then established a vineyard on 35 acres. He also cultivated six hundred varieties of roses, while he planted trees and shrubs that were in turn sold to local farmers to increase their yields. He was responsible for introducing to Algeria hundreds of varieties of trees, including fruit-bearing and ornamental varieties. He conducted experiments in grafting, while his interest in climatology led him to record average temperatures and precipitation for nearly 40 years.
 
According to some accounts, it was Brother Marie-Clément who made grafts from an uncultivated tree that had sprung up among some thorn bushes in the orphanage orchard. This graft resulted in the Clementine, which was named by the botanist Charles Louis Trabut.  Initially dubbed "Mandarinette," it was well-received since it is sweet and has little pith. It originated sometime between 1892 and 1900, according to botanists, but there is evidence that Trabut the botanist, who chaired the Horticultural Society of Algeria, regularly visited Brother Marie-Clément to examine the results of his experiments with grafting. A much later study of the chromosomes of the Clementine has since cast doubt on the accidental origins of the fruit.
 
In 1892, Father Abram – the founder of the orphanage – died. The orphanage faced financial difficulties that caused a crisis for the Little Brothers. Following negotiations, the orphanage was taken into the care of the Holy Ghost Fathers (a.k.a. Spiritans). Most of the Little Brothers, including Brother Marie-Clément, became professed Spiritans. He died in 1904. Along with the graves of other religious, Brother Marie-Clément’s final resting place was leveled and planted with grass, after Algeria’s independence from France in the 1950s. The orphanage was nationalized, as were many other Christian foundations.
 
The namesake of the Clementine now rests in an ossuary at the convent of the Trinitarian Sister near the orchards where he once labored.
 
Nearby was once a place of prayer and pilgrimage for both Christians and Muslims. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, a grotto on the side of a hill was visited for decades. Decorated with expressions of thanksgiving, it held a dear place in the hearts of believers in Algeria. Since independence, however, and the demands made by Islamist extremists, the grotto has since been bricked over.
 
(Grotto of La Vierge de Misserghin in 1957)
 
(The grotto of La Vierge de Misserghin in 2011)


Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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