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History of the Citrus and Citrus Tree Growing in America


The pleasing appearance of citrus trees and the fruit was mentioned by many ancient travelers, even though the fruit of citrus trees had not evolved to the point as an important food staple, the fragrance of all parts of the citrus trees, including the flowers and fruit, were desirable perfumers of rooms and were thought to repel insects.


The occurrence of citrus in Europe and Mideast were thought to have been natural occurring native trees and shrubs, but historians today believe that the ancestor of the citrus trees, Citrus medica L., was introduced by Alexander the Great from India into Greece, Turkey, and North Africa in the late 4th century BC. The most ancient citrus was called ‘citron.’


There are ancient clues from wall paintings in the Egyptian temple at Karnak that citrus trees had been growing there. There were other suggestions that citrus trees may have been familiar to the Jews during their exile and slavery by the Babylonians in the 6th century BC. Even though speculations suggest that citrus trees were known and grown by the Hebrews, there is no direct mention in the Bible of citrus.


The first recording of citrus, Citrus medica L., in European history was done by Theophrastus, in 350 BC, following the introduction of the fruit by Alexander the Great. In early European history, writers wrote about Persian citrus, that it had a wonderful fragrance and was thought to be a remedy for poisoning, a breath sweetener, and a repellant to moths.


Citrus was well known by the ancient cultures of the Greeks and later the Romans. A beautiful ceramic tile was found in the ruins of Pompeii after the city was destroyed by a volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Another mosaic tile in the ruins of a Roman villa in Carthage, North Africa, in about the 2nd century AD, clearly showed the fruit of a citron and a lemon fruit growing on a tree branch.



Early Christian tile mosaics dating back to 300 AD of both oranges and lemon were shown in lemon-yellow and orange colors surrounded by bright green leaves and freshly cut tree branches; the relics can still be seen in Istanbul, Turkey at mosques that once were churches of Emperor Constantine.


It is not known how, where, or when the exceptional present day varieties of citrus trees developed, such as the sweet orange, lemon, kumquat, lime, grapefruit, or pummelo, but there appears to be a general consensus of opinions that all these citrus developments and improvements were obtained by natural and artificial selection and natural evolution. It is well known, that the Romans were familiar with the sour orange, Citrus aurantium L. and the lemon tree, Citrus limon. After the fall of Rome to the barbarian invasions and the Muslims, the Arab states rapidly spread the naturally improving cultivars of citrus fruits and trees throughout much of North Africa, Spain, and Syria. The spread of sour orange, Citrus aurantium L., and the lemon, Citrus limon, extended the growing and planting of these trees on a worldwide scale by planting the seed, which produced citrus trees very similar to the parent trees. The Crusades conquest of the Arabs later spread citrus planting and growing throughout Europe.


The sweet orange, Citrus sinensis, appeared late in the 1400’s, near the time of Christopher Columbus, who discovered America. After trade routes were closed when the Turks defeated the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453, centered in Constantinople (Istanbul), many European kings began to seek alternate, trade, sea routes to open trade by ships with China and India. The sweet orange tree introduction into Europe changed the dynamics of citrus fruit importance in the world. The voyage of Portuguese explorer, Vasco de Gamma, recorded that in 1498, there were multitudes of orange trees in India, and all the fruits had a sweet taste. The new sweet orange variety, known as the “Portugal orange” caused a dramatic surge in citrus planting, much like the much later appearance of the “Washington navel orange” tree introduction into California.



The lime, Citrus latifolia, was first mentioned in European history by Sir Thomas Herbert in his book, Travels, who recorded that he found growing “oranges, lemons, and limes” off the island of Mozambique in the mid 1600’s. Lime trees today are available in many cultivars.


In 1707, Spanish missions were growing oranges, fig trees, quinces, pomegranates, peaches, apricots, apples, pear trees, mulberries, pecans, and other trees according to horticultural documents.


The Mandarin orange, Citrus reticulata, was described in Chinese history in the late 1100’s, but was unknown in Europe, until it was brought from a Mandarin province in China to England in 1805, where it spread rapidly throughout Europe.


The pummelo, Citrus grandis, also called the shaddock and the ‘Adam’s Apple’ was growing in Palestine in the early 1200’s and was planted and grown by the Arabs. The pummelo is believed to have an Asian origin and was planted as seed in the New World.


The grapefruit, Citrus paradisi, is believed to have arisen as a mutation from the pummelo tree. Grapefruit were so named because they grew in clusters like grapes, but most gardeners considered them to be inedible until A.L. Duncan found an outstanding seedling grapefruit that was named Duncan grapefruit in 1892; the original tree is still alive and growing in Florida.


Christopher Columbus introduced citrus on the island of Haiti in 1493. It is believed that he brought citrus seed to be planted and grown of the sour orange, the sweet orange, citron, lemon, lime, and pummelo fruits. Records show that these citrus trees were well established in the American colonies in about 1565 at Saint Augustine, Florida, and in coastal South Carolina.


William Bartram reported in his celebrated botanical book, Travels, in 1773 that Henry Laurens from Charleston, South Carolina, who served as a President of the Continental Congrees, introduced “olives, limes, ginger, everbearing strawberry, red raspberry, and blue grapes” into the United States colonies after the year 1755.


William Bartram in his book, Travels, reported that near Savannah, Georgia, “it is interesting to note that as late as 1790, oranges were cultivated in some quantity along the coast, and in that year some 3000 gallons of orange juice were exported.”


Many of these wild orange groves were seen by the early American explorer, William Bartram, according to his book, Travels, in 1773, while traveling down the Saint John’s River in Florida. Bartram mistakenly thought these orange trees were native to Florida; however, they were established centuries earlier by the Spanish explorers.


The citrus industry began rapidly developing in 1821 when the Spanish gave up their territories and its many orange groves to the United States. Wild orange tree groves were top-worked with improved cultivars and residents traveling to Florida realized how refreshing orange juice tasted; thus began the shipments of oranges, grapefruit, limes, and lemons that were sent to Philadelphia and New York by railway and ships in the 1880’s.



Citrus plantings were extensively done in California by the Spanish missionaries; however, the commercial industry began to grow with the 1849 Gold Rush boom, and efforts to supply the miners from San Francisco with citrus fruit were successful. The completion of the Transcontinental Railway further stimulated the citrus industry, since citrus could be rapidly sent to eastern markets. Later improvements of refrigeration helped to increase citrus growing and planting, mainly oranges, lemons, and limes throughout the world in 1889.


Florida at first dominated citrus production in the United States, but because of some devastating freezes in 1894 and 1899, Satsuma orange trees were virtually wiped out in the Gulf States. Thousands of acres of Satsuma orange trees were wiped out in Alabama, Texas, and Louisiana in the hard freeze of 1916; thus the citrus production of the United States began to shift from Florida to California.


Citrus is marketed throughout the world as a beneficial health fruit that contains Vitamin C and numerous other vitamins and minerals in orange and citrus products lime marmalade, fresh fruit, and frozen and hot-pack citrus juice concentrates.


By Pat Rick