Oranges in an outdoor market in Mexico.
The room that surprised me most at London’s Hampton Court Palace, the first time I visited, was the orangery. I expected a lot of things in a palace, but not agriculture. The orangery at Hampton Court is a wonderful, bright room with high ceilings and high, arched windows that can be opened out onto a patio. The room was lined with rows of small, healthy, carefully trimmed orange trees in beautiful, large, porcelain pots.
A few years later, I visited Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home in Virginia. I had seen pictures, so I knew what the main buildings would look like, but I was surprised to find, tucked behind some of the fabulous gardens, a magnificent orangery.
This was beginning to look like a trend.
The era of growing oranges indoors was, in fact, only one small segment of the long history of oranges, but the immense cost to which people went to construct these buildings hints at the astonishing popularity of the fruit. While there have been times when their fame was due almost as much to their scarcity as to their taste, abundance has only served to make oranges more popular. Today, oranges are considered to be one of the five or six most important fruits in the world.
The orange is a member of the genus Citrus. As is true of most citrus fruits, oranges are native to tropical Asia. Many scholars place the point of origin in southwest China, but it appears that their genesis may have occurred anywhere from northeast India to Myanmar. For millennia, the orange was the monopoly of China, where it was cultivated as early as 2500 BC. It is, in fact, China’s ability to keep oranges a secret for thousands of years that argues strongly for a Chinese origin. No mention of oranges was made by the Greeks or by anyone in the ancient Middle East. The first recorded appearance of oranges outside China was in the Indus Valley in the first century AD. About that same time, oranges began appearing on the menus of royal banquets in India, and, shortly thereafter, Roman ships began returning from India with young orange trees. We know that Rome grew oranges, though not easily, because the Roman epigrammatic poet Marcus Valerius Martial wrote directions for protecting orange trees from the cold. But even with a few trees on hand, oranges were rare in Rome, and they pretty well vanished from the Mediterranean after the empire collapsed in the 5th century.
Arab traders, who had long carried spices to the Mediterranean from India, also began carrying oranges in the first century AD, planting saplings in the Middle East and carrying them across North Africa as they conquered the region.
Invasion introduced oranges not only across North Africa, but also brought oranges back to Europe. Moors conquered Spain in the eighth century, and by the twelfth century, had orchards spread from Granada to Seville. The Saracens introduced oranges to Sicily by the eleventh century, but oranges didn’t make a reappearance in Italy until the thirteenth century. The highly acidic sour orange appears to have reached Europe first, where it was often known as bigarade, a name derived from the Arabic. (The sweet orange seems not to have appeared in Europe for another two centuries, but it is difficult to know precisely when, as most writers of the time used the same name for both species.)
The south of France was ideal for oranges, and orchards spread through this region, as well. In fact, by 1332, oranges were being exported from Nice.
By the time of Charles II (mid-1600s), oranges were so widely available in England that “orange girls” were selling them in theaters. It seems likely that the sweet oranges that were delighting the British during this era were from Portugal, as the Portuguese had been growing and exporting exceptionally fine sweet oranges since shortly after the return of Vasco de Gama from India in 1498. In fact, Portugal became such an important supplier of sweet oranges in the Mediterranean that the Greek word for oranges is portokáli.
Oranges made the jump to the New World at the same time Europeans did. Columbus carried both seeds and saplings with him in 1493, and they throve in the soil and weather of Hispaniola. Panama was the first foothold on the mainland, and oranges were being planted in Mexico by 1518, carefully tended by Aztec priests who were astonished to see plants that were completely new to them. (Columbus introduced both of the major types of oranges: the sweet orange and the sour orange. Oranges are still immensely important in Mexican cooking. Juice from the sour orange is the most important acidic liquid for Mexican marinades, pickling, and adobos.) The Portuguese were not far behind the Spanish, introducing oranges into their South American colony in Brazil in the early 1500s.
Sometime between the arrival of the first explorers in 1513 and the settlement of St. Augustine in 1565, sweet oranges were introduced into Florida. The indigenous people were grateful, and quickly incorporated oranges into their cuisine, creating such delicacies as red snapper steamed with fresh orange and sliced oranges marinated in honey. Soon, between Spanish exploration and Indian enthusiasm, oranges had spread throughout Florida. Though California would someday become Florida’s competitor in the orange market, oranges actually didn’t get introduced into the West Coast until 1739, when Spanish missionaries began growing them at their missions.
In areas where oranges were not easily grown out of doors, people tried to grow them indoors—and palaces began sprouting orangeries. But orangeries were not limited to palaces or to Europe. Even relatively modest country homes of the gentry could grow a fruit that was still sufficiently exotic to constitute a good Christmas gift, and orangeries became as common in the colonies’ finer homes as they were in Europe’s. However, the orangery at Mount Vernon was particularly famous in its day, both for its beauty and its innovation. Washington, who was an engineer as well as an avid gardener, built his orangery with the back and side walls shared by the homes of the estate’s servants. The fires that warmed the servants’ homes of a chilly winter night would also warm the orangery. How efficient. Like the orangery at Hampton Court Palace, Washington’s orangery also possesses a high ceiling and high windows/doors that open out onto a patio, to take advantage of summer sunlight and the bees needed for pollinating the rows of potted trees.
Oranges kept traveling around the world. Cultivation of oranges in southern Africa began in 1654, and oranges were being planted in Australia by 1788. Oranges are now grown in tropical and subtropical regions around the world.
Today, the annual production of all varieties of oranges, worldwide, is about 70,000,000 metric tons. Brazil is the world’s largest producer of oranges. There are several varieties of orange. The two basic species mentioned above, still the most important oranges in the world, from the standpoint of numbers, are the sweet orange, also known as the China or common orange, and the sour orange, also called the Seville orange. Depending on whom you believe, the mandarin orange (some varieties of which are known as tangerines) may be another species of orange, but a few notable scholars describe it as being an “orange-like fruit.” (Botany is a lot messier and more inexact than you might think.) More certain is the classification of more recently developed orange varieties, most notably Israel’s Jaffa orange, Malta’s blood orange, and the wonderfully juicy navel orange, which thrives in subtropical climates.
Because citrus fruits have so little starch, they can’t be harvested until they have reached the desired sugar-acid balance (i.e., they’re ripe). And citrus likes a little cool weather—in fact, most species don’t change color without a cold spell. Oranges in the tropics are often green, even when ripe.
The English word for orange comes to us directly from French, orange, which is descended from Old Provençal, auranja. Before that, it goes almost straight back to the Sanskrit word for the orange tree, naranga. Depending on which sources you believe, this name either refers to the orange’s scent (naru is Tamil for “fragrant”) or to an elephant dying of indigestion from eating too many oranges. Being a poet, as well as a foodie, I’m going with fragrance.
[This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Hungry Magazine.]
©2008 Cynthia Clampitt