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Orchard Trees of Rancho El Cerrito: Oranges

Articles: Orchard Trees of Rancho El Cerrito: Oranges
‘Carter’ navel orange. Author’s photographs
‘Carter’ navel orange. Author’s photographs

The primary orchard at Rancho Los Cerritos, in Long Beach, California, was designed by Ralph D Cornell in 1931, as part of an estate plan commissioned by the Bixby family (see Pacific Horticulture, July ’08). Cornell included three different kinds of oranges: Mediterranean sweet, ‘Carter’ navel, and ‘Valencia’. This diverse planting ensured that the owners enjoyed fresh oranges nearly year round. The following thumbnail histories of those three oranges are based on research undertaken in preparation for the orchard’s restoration in 2001.

The Oranges

Originating in Asia, oranges (Citrus sinensis) are thought to be the result of crossing tangerines (C. reticulata) and pummelos (C. maxima). This resulted in two major categories of oranges: sweet and sour. The Moors introduced the sour orange to Europe early in the fifteenth century. The sweet orange that was cultivated for centuries by the Chinese was introduced in the mid-fifteenth century.

Spanish missionaries planted oranges in Florida, Brazil, and Central America. From there, citrus was introduced to Mexico and Southern California, where eighteen out of twenty-one missions planted orchards. Mission San Gabriel had the largest orange grove, with 400 trees that provided stock for California’s nascent agricultural industry.

Mediterranean Sweet Orange

Nurseryman Thomas A Garey arrived in San Diego in 1852 but soon relocated to Los Angeles, buying land on San Pedro Street for his nursery. He was successful at growing citrus, naming and introducing several new cultivars. His favorite orange was ‘Garey’s Mediterranean Sweet’, which he introduced as a superior market fruit in 1877 and exported plants to customers as far away as Australia. An advertisement he placed in the Southern California Horticulturist reads, “After four years of trial of this variety, I can consistently recommend it to my customers as the best orange, all things considered, in the world.”

The popularity of Mediterranean sweet oranges would eventually be eclipsed; by the 1950s, the tree was no longer on the market. In fact, existing trees could not be found to provide bud wood for grafting. The staff at the UC Riverside Citrus Collection knew of a direct descendent from a tree imported from Garey’s Los Angeles nursery and growing in Australia. Due to citrus quarantine regulations, seeds rather than cuttings were obtained, and the UC staff propagated one tree for the orchard at Rancho Los Cerritos. The seed had traveled around the world, only to be planted a handful of miles from where its distant parent originated lo’ those many years ago!

Fragrant white flowers of the navel orange
Fragrant white flowers of the navel orange

The Navel Orange

The Mediterranean sweet orange was good, but news of a quality fruit discovered in an old monastery garden in Bahia, Brazil, surfaced around 1820. Several individuals showed interest, including Thomas Garey. Bud wood was sent to Australia and from there to Garey and others. Invariably, they received what came to be known as the “false navel,” and not worth promoting.

The true Bahia navel orange was finally introduced to the US by William Saunders, a superintendent of the US Department of Agriculture. He learned of the tree from a neighbor, recently back after serving at a mission in Bahia, who told him of an orange that excelled over any kind she had ever tasted. Saunders wrote to Brazil; with the aid of a missionary still in Bahia, a crate of twelve newly budded trees arrived in Washington, DC, in 1870. Saunders propagated additional trees and sent them to growers in Florida and three locations in California: San Diego, Hayward, and Riverside.

Eliza and Luther Tibbetts, former neighbors of Saunders, had recently purchased eighty acres of land in Riverside. In 1873, the Tibbetts received two of the navel orange trees from Saunders and planted them next to their home, where they were hand watered and nurtured. Five years later, the trees caught the attention of a neighbor, Thomas W Cover, who propagated the navel for sale in his nursery and exhibited the fruit at the first Riverside Fair in 1879. The trees sent to San Diego and Hayward also did well, but, as Eliza Tibbetts’ trees were the first to produce fruit, the glory goes to her and her two trees.

Eliza’s Bahia trees were named the ‘Riverside’ navel, but, to broaden the appeal and target a national audience, the name was changed to honor George Washington. The ‘Washington’ navel was seedless, easy to peel, sweet, colorful, produced fruit winter through spring, and shipped well.

California took the lead in supplying eating oranges to the rest of the country and continues to hold that position today. A statistic shows that cuttings from Eliza’s trees produced more than ten million navel orange trees. Of her original trees, only one survives today. Donated to the City of Riverside, it was moved and designated an historic landmark in 1903. When it started failing in 1920, seedling oranges were grafted onto its base to improve the root structure. The tree continues to survive, and many a tourist pays homage to it each year.

A sport (a mutation) was observed on a ‘Washington’ navel and judged to be slightly superior; soon, the ‘Carter’ navel was introduced. Cornell planted one ‘Carter’ navel in the Rancho Los Cerritos orchard. This tree remains from the original planting and did not need to be replaced when the orchard was restored.

The Valencia Orange

Entrepreneurs were always looking to produce and promote the latest and greatest orange. In 1865, Englishman Thomas Rivers imported a sweet orange from the Azores Islands back to Britain under the name ‘Excelsior’. Nurserymen Chapman & Smith then imported ‘Excelsior’ from England to California in 1876. Chapman noticed that the variety produced fruit much later than other oranges and changed the name to ‘Valencia Late’, because of a supposed similarity to a late-ripening orange in Spain. The name is typically shortened to ‘Valencia’.

Introduced in 1885, the chief value of ‘Valencia’ was its late season, as this meant that premium prices could be charged for the fruit. With its high juice content and late season, the ‘Valencia’ was to become another breakout introduction for the industry.

Meanwhile a fellow named EH Hart planted unnamed oranges from Rivers (indirectly) in Federal Point, Florida in 1877. He named them ‘Hart’s Tardiff’ for their late fruiting season, but the similarities between his trees and trees growing in California were so great that they were determined to be the same cultivar, and ‘Hart’s Tardiff’ was changed to ‘Valencia’. So, between the two coasts, there are two different stories on the introduction of ‘Valencia’ orange. Today ‘Valencia’ continues to be Florida’s premier orange.

The original Bixby ‘Valencia’ remains today and it does, indeed, significantly extend the fruiting season.




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