The First Orange in Orange County California

One of the few remaining farms near the ocean, 1975. Photo by Charles O'Rear.

The creation of “Orange Gold”: The journey of oranges from: Asia, to Africa, to Europe, to South America, to North America and then to California.

Oranges originated some 20 million years ago on the Malay-East Indian Archipelago. This original citrus fruit was small, wrinkled and bitter. There are 2000 year old Sanskrit writings of “nagrunga” cultivation as a medicinal herb.

During the “Middle Kingdom” oranges reached the Guangdong area of China where agriculturists produced the Mandarin orange.

Seafaring Polynesians carried orange seeds to new islands where the domesticated Tahitian orange was cultivated as both food and medicine.

The First Orange in Europe

From India, traders carried orange products and bitter orange seeds along the Silk Road to North Africa and then Southern Europe. The Romans mixed bitter orange juice with slave produced sugar to make an orange drink.

During the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula citriculture flourished. Agriculturists practiced selective breeding and Spanish cities became known for their delicious oranges. The Moors and the Spanish may not have understood biochemistry or Vitamin C absorption, but they could observe and understand the prevention of rickets.

The consumption of oranges allowed for long sea voyages to explore and exploit the new world.

The First Orange in the New World

In the cargo of the Columbus’ second voyage, in 1493, were orange seeds as part of the imposition of Castilian culture on Hispaniola. Like Christianity the Spanish considered the knowledge and consumption of oranges a mark of civilization. To hold an orange was to hold the vitality of the sun in ones hand.

The Franciscans considered Christianity and oranges to be gifts they carried to their “Indian Children,” from God, and, the imposition of Christianity and citriculture were considered justifications for the imposition of slavery on the native peoples.

The First Orange in California

Oranges were brought to California at Mission San Diego de Alcala in 1769, the same year Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded. Agricultural plantings of domesticated plants began in San Juan Capistrano in 1770. The first tart “mission orange” was grown in Orange County for food, medicinal use and the imposition of agricultural imperialism on Alta California.

In 1804 the Indian slaves of Mission San Gabriel planted some 400 Spanish sweet orange trees. Under the theocratic doctrine of usufruct the Padres had started the first commercial orange grove.

The First Valencia Orange

In 1836 the frontier trailblazer, trapper, soldier of fortune, cowboy and entrepreneur William Wolfskill filed a petition with the Mexican government, he was granted possession of a ranch in what is now downtown Los Angeles and began farming. This man of great natural ability and curiosity studied the crops grown around California. In 1841 he planted a two acre citrus grove with seedlings from Mission San Gabriel.

He experimented with citrus trees and developed an orange that had excellent taste, was rich in juice, had eye pleasing color, firm flesh and a resilient skin resistant to handling and transportation damage. He named his new orange “Valencia” after the Spanish city known for its fine orange groves.

Wolfskill expanded his citrus groves and continued to improve his orange to resist insects and disease and to increase yield. When the gold rush of 1849 hit, Wolfskill was in full production and took advantage of the new market for his fruit.

Miners paid as much as $1 each for oranges to prevent scurvy; Wolfskill became the first “Orange Gold” millionaire.

The First Orange Grove in Orange County

Mission oranges were grown in gardens in what is now Orange County. In the Anaheim Wine Colony orange dessert wine was a specialty. In 1869 Dr. William N. Hardin arrived in Anaheim. He was an educated entrepreneur with a keen interest in horticulture.

On his arrival he took the job of Justice of The Peace, Dr. Hardin bought a vineyard lot and two barrels of rotten Tahitian oranges.

Dr. Hardin extracted and planted the seeds and began the first orange grove in Orange County. He had a steady and profitable business selling nursery stock.

The First Valencia Orange Grove in Orange County

In 1872 Richard Hall Gilman representing the Southern California Semi-Tropical Fruit Company bought 160 acres, grafted Valencia branches onto Hardin’s Tahitian root stock and planted the first commercial Valencia Orange Grove in Orange County. This grove provided an important summer crop for the soon to be dominant agribusiness of Orange County.

This location is now the site of the Fullerton State University Arboretum.

The First Naval Orange

In the 1820’s a cosmic ray struck an orange tree in a tart Spanish orange grove on a Missionary plantation in Sao Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. This cosmic ray strike produced the random mutation called the Navel Orange.

This unique bud sport was discovered by a botanist Protestant Missionary searching for new plants. He took cuttings of the only branch of the single tree that had produced this sweet tasting but sterile citrus mutation. The rooted cuttings were imported by the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington DC under the supervision of botanist William Saunders.

Eliza and Luther C. Tibbets were neighbors of Saunders who had fallen on hard times and had become economic refugees from Washington DC to Riverside, California. Searching for income Eliza asked Saunders to make them test growers of the imported Naval Orange. Saunders mailed the Tibbets’ three rooted cuttings in 1873. One was trampled by a cow. The other two bore fruit and became the parents of all California Naval Orange trees.

Cuttings were taken and grafted onto root stock to start groves in Orange County.

One of these “Parent” trees still exits and is on display in Riverside, California.

Naval oranges are sterile, seedless mutants. All of the Navel Oranges in all of America, these grand fruits of Yankee perspicacity, are genetically identical clones from that single branch in Brazil.


  1. When Anaheim Was 21 Leo J. Friis, Pioneer Press, Anaheim 1968
  2. Orange Empire: California and the fruits of Eden Sackman, Douglas Cazaux University of California Press 2007
  3. Proceedings of the Conference of Orange County History, 1989 Chapman College