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The orange tree, where it came from and how it got here

Roger Boddaert

Special to the Village News

With your morning paper, let’s unpeel the orange fruit’s history over a glass of breakfast O.J. and its global travels.

History tells us that the original fossil of the sour orange dates back millions of years ago to China with the wild species and does not resemble anything like today’s round, brightly colored orange fruit.

Fast forward to the 11th century, and the orange traveled throughout the Arab world to Persia, Egypt, Palestine, North Africa, and beyond. The word “orange” derives from the Sanskrit word naranga and, as it moved north into Europe, it is said that it took on the Old French word orenge.

The sweet orange eventually reached Europe through commercial trade routes, by land and by seafaring sailing ships. Christopher Columbus took some orange seeds in one of his adventures to the New World and planted thorn in the isle of Haiti.

On these long Atlantic crossings, the orange fruit became part of the food supplies and were used to ward off scurvy for its sailors. When the missionaries were developing the missions throughout California, one of the first citrus orchards was planted at the San Gabriel Mission east of Los Angeles around the early 1800s.

In these early years, citrus trees were planted around most of the missions from San Diego to San Jose, and the citrus orchards began to enter the central area of the Los Angeles basin en masse.

In 1870, the U.S.D.A. introduced the navel orange which instantly gained popularity with the public with its nutritional value and its delicious flavor.

The citrus industry expanded quickly and, by 1875, over 2 million trees sprung up on large rural ranches from San Bernardino, Riverside, and San Diego counties and grew abundantly in that mild Mediterranean climate.

Enter now the lemon and grapefruit tree industry which started around 1900, and over 800,000 trees were producing these subtropical fruits to feed the booming populace.

The citrus industry was proliferating, and more acreage was planted in the San Joaquin Valley to meet the demand, and California became known as the citrus empire.

Other citrus crops entered with hybrids and named cultivars along with kumquats, limes, pomelos, tangerines, tangelo, and blood oranges, all grown in California.

Oranges are mainly produced for fresh consumption in California, led by the Valencia orange as a summer fruit and the navel orange as a winter fruit, but the two sometimes overlap within the spring seasons, pending climatic conditions.

In the late 1800s, the transcontinental railway system was completed with the advent of refrigerated train shipping boxcars, and now the citrus industry had a boost to transport the citrus fruits to the East Coast, and an expanding marketplace exploded with new frontiers all year long, weather pending.

Florida has been known as the orange juice state, with the bulk of its trees used for fresh and concentrated juice.

The citrus industry was growing with leaps and bounds, and the growers needed to form a farmer's cooperative, and the Sunkist Exchange was created to help market the fruits throughout the country, which proved very successful.

Today the large ranches are gone, and patches of citrus trees dot the remaining landscape in isolated pockets throughout the state. But one local remaining citrus growing area is just east of Fallbrook out towards Pauma Valley and it is a site to behold, whether to smell the orange flower’s fragrance in spring or the orange fruit hanging on the trees.

At the University of Riverside, scientists are working diligently with over 1,000 different varieties of citrus in their germplasm collection, looking for ways to improve and preserve new strains for the woad, love of the orange.

One highlight of past Christmas memories was having an orange fruit tucked in my stocking hung on the mantel, and I found It fascinating how Santa included that little orange fruit with other trinkets of holiday joy. And to this day, that holiday tradition continues in my grandkid’s stockings.

I remember taking the Sunday drive with Mom and Dad out on Route 66 to Riverside to smell the orange blossoms in springtime. The Orange Julius roadside stands were dotted on those excursions to enjoy a cold, frothy citrus drink and read the Burma Shave signs in the olden days.

So, when you’re enjoying today’s oranges, give thanks to their travels and how they shaped the California landscape of years gone by.

Roger Boddaert, The Tree Man of Fallbrook, can be reached at 760-728-4297.


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