History Of Citrus
By Patrick Malcolm
The pleasing appearance of orange trees and the fruit
was mentioned by many ancient travelers, even though the fruit of orange trees had not evolved to the point as
an important food staple, the fragrance of all parts of the orange trees, including the flowers and fruit, were
desirable perfumers of rooms and were thought to repel insects.
The occurrence of oranges in Europe and Mideast were
thought to have been natural occurring native trees and shrubs, but historians today believe that the ancestor
of orange 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 orange trees had been growing there. There were other suggestions that orange 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 orange 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
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
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
In 1707, Spanish missions were growing oranges, fig trees,
quinces, pomegranates, peaches, apricots, apples, pear trees, mulberries, pecans, and other trees according to
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
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
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.
Copyright 2006 Patrick Malcolm