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Inland Empire Old-Grove Orange

Valencia Orange (sinensis cv Valencia)
Washington Navel Orange (sinensis cv Washington)

The story of Southern California’s orange industry is epic. Although citrus had been grown previously in California by mission padres moving north from Baja California, the first sweet orange grove of any size was planted in the garden of the San Gabriel Mission by Father Francisco Miguel S?nchez in 1803. Although other fruit was grown throughout Southern California, sweet oranges were not grown outside of the mission because the padres refused to allow them to be raised elsewhere. After 1833 California became secularized and mission orange seedlings, whose fruit was similar to Valencias, were sold by the padres to settlers, who planted small commercial groves in the Los Angeles area. These groves became lucrative during the Gold Rush, when the fruit was transported by ship to San Francisco. Because producing groves took so long to establish however, their planting was not expanded and eventually these groves along with mission plantings were lost.

In 1865, English nurseryman Thomas Rivers imported oranges from the Azores under the name of Excelsior. He sent some to A.B. Chapman of San Gabriel, California in 1876. This planting formed the parent stock of old grove ?Valencia? oranges in the Los Angeles Basin. Chapman coined the term for these oranges from a conversation he had with a Spaniard who said they had a similar orange in the Valencia region of Spain.

The town of Riverside, to the southeast, was where the commercial citrus industry in the United States really got its start in the 1870’s. Although there were extensive commercial groves in Florida and Texas, the industry did not really blossom until Washington navel orange matriarch Eliza Tibbit was shipped three trees by an old friend, William Saunders, of the Department of Agriculture in Washington D.C. The seedless orange trees had come from cuttings of a ?sport? branch of a tree that bore seeded fruit in Bahia, Brazil. Eliza nurtured the trees until they produced fruit, which was an instant hit. Cuttings from her trees were so desired that fences had to be built to keep thieves away. Industrious Eliza sold budding wood for one dollar per twig. These cuttings formed the basis of the California citrus industry. The parent stock in Brazil became diseased and died in the early 1900’s, and it is thought that all Washington navel orange trees throughout the world are derived from Eliza Tibbit’s planting. One of her mother trees still survives as California State Historical Landmark Number 20, in the city of Riverside in a small park near Palm and Magnolia Avenues.

The Washington navel, a winter orange, coupled with early (and then expanded) planting of Valencia oranges, which ripen in the summer and fall, created a year-round citrus industry. This allowed for a permanent population of agricultural workers, who became integrated into their communities. The citrus industry boomed in the early 1900’s when railroads were completed to Southern California. The fruit was railed to the east coast and then shipped to Europe. It was considered the finest in the world. The boom continued until the 1940s, which was its peak at 75 million cases of fruit. The rush for development in the Los Angeles Basin, in the post WWII boom, however crushed the industry, leaving only scattered remnants in the midst of urban sprawl.

The Inland Orange Conservancy, a non-profit organization, is working to protect the remaining old groves in the Redlands and Riverside areas.The IOC is being helped both by the city of Redlands, and the University of California at Redlands. To date only 100 acres and 24 growers are part of the conservancy, although others have been identified and work is being done to safeguard them also.

All of these groves are under significant threat. Because the old grove oranges are small, and their skins show imperfections, they are not marketable in the United States so are shipped to Asia, not bringing enough money to pay for harvest.

In order to save the remaining groves, the IOC initiated a membership program to bypass the global market and get the fruit directly to local people so that the growers keep more profit. The orange harvest time is divided into three 14-week seasons. For $65 dollars per season members receive 10 pounds of oranges per week during their selected seasons. The oranges are delivered to various pickup locations by volunteers.

The Washington Navel orange is small in size and bright orange in color, both rind and flesh, with a thin, fine-textured skin. It has a sweet, citrus and blossomy fragrance and is close to a standard navel orange in aroma. With a fine and firm texture, the orange is dense and juicy, not watery, and has few seeds. It has a more intense and complex flavor compared to standard Navel oranges, which are often coarse, thick-skinned and pulpy. It tastes sweet and full-flavored without too much acidity. Even the last harvest has a high quality taste. The Valencia orange, which also has a fairly thin skin, has been described as very light, delicate and floral in taste as well as very aromatic.

Photo courtesy of Gina Fiorillo

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