Food & Drink

Pull the Fruit Apart

A visit to the first of California’s orange trees


In 1873, three citrus seedlings arrived in Riverside, California. They had travelled far. Originating in Sao Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, they were carried northward at the request of the US Department of Agriculture. In the US capital, the saplings were re-christened the Washington Navel orange and, now American, they headed west to Eliza Tibbets’ garden in the city of Riverside, 50 miles east of Los Angeles. Planted in Californian soil, one sapling was trampled by a cow, but the other two grew into fruit-bearing trees, nurtured by the sun and Eliza’s dirty dishwater. The sweet, seedless fruit was so popular that Eliza cut buds from her trees to be grafted to other citrus rootstock. By 1910, over a million Washington Navel orange trees had sprung up in Riverside, each tracing its lineage back to one of Eliza’s two parent trees.

One of these orange trees still grows in Riverside. In the armpit of Magnolia and Arlington Avenues, the 150-year-old tree stands behind a screen cage to protect it from disease, insects and greedy hands. I found myself standing before it in January, California’s peak orange season, and so ripe fruit hung from its branches like golden ornaments. I circled its breadth slowly, taking in its peeling, grey trunk and bushes of glossy evergreen leaves. Like Eve’s apple and Persephone’s pomegranate, California’s oranges are as much myth as they are fruit. They tell a story of California as a paradise of empty land waiting to be worked into groves of ripe fruit by a new generation of Anglo-Americans. But they also tell other stories: of Indigenous genocide, of immigrant workers, of land seized, of orange barons, of capitalism, of manifest destiny. Oranges created California. Once you start to pull the fruit apart, you pull apart a nation’s self-mythology.

I was in town to visit the University of California Riverside’s Citrus Variety Collection, one of the most extensive citrus collections in the world. I had been emailing its curator, Dr Tracy Kahn, for a few months and she had agreed to show me around the collection. I took an early morning train from Los Angeles to Riverside, rattling along hills and freeways into the rising sun. In Riverside’s small station, I waited for Tracy beside an abandoned plastic bag that had spilled its insides – tiny easy peel oranges – across the sidewalk. It seemed I was in the right place.

Tracy had picked me up in her car and as we drove, she asked me to explain why I was in Riverside again. I told her I was writing a book about oranges and my research had led me to the Citrus Variety Collection. She seemed amused that a writer – and one who was adamantly not a science writer – had travelled all the way from Scotland to Southern California to visit the collection. Even though I had only asked to see the collection’s fruit, Tracy decided that I should get the full tour of Riverside’s citrus history for my bother. So, to Eliza’s tree we had driven. 

“Look down there,” Tracy pointed to the tree’s base. Rather than a single trunk, multiple thick branches curved from the tree into the earth. Tracy explained that this is called inarching. In 1918, the tree became ill, suffering from a rot-rooting fungal disease. Inarching – a process in which rootstocks from other citrus trees are grafted to the original tree to create a new root system – was delivered by three scientists, so that no single man could be blamed if the operation failed and Riverside’s beloved tree died. Lemon and orange seedlings were inarched successfully by the three scientists, with several more grafted in 1951. The citrus genus is cultivated through grafting, whereby rootstock and budwood from different fruit trees are brought together to create a single, stronger tree. Grafting surpasses reproducing citrus from seed – a laborious process which can take seven years to bear fruit – and it gives the genus its versatility and its endless fruit-bearing possibilities. A single tree can host different varieties, so that blood orange can be grafted to pomelo to lemon, and pink, green and orange fruit can thrive together.

The Citrus Variety Collection is fenced in from the freeway in the south-east of Riverside. After we visited Eliza’s tree, Tracy drove us to the compound which encompasses 22 acres of land and over 1,000 varieties of citrus. Trees – tall and short, heavy and thin – ran into the distance in perfect straight lines, one after the other, in every direction. Oranges grew in their tens of thousands. I had never seen so much citrus.

We moved towards the trees. Tracy carried a heavy blue binder of papers with her, flipping through its pages to find her map of citrus. When she located the numbered citrus variety she wanted to show me, she set off, moving fast through the rows of trees with me stumbling after her. We stopped at a Washington Navel, which began life as a bud on Eliza Tibbets’ parent tree. Tracy pulled a fruit from its branches and quartered it with a pocket knife. She handed me a segment and I bit into the fruit, which turned to sweet juice and stringy flesh in my mouth. It would have tasted good anywhere, but pulled fresh from its tree, grown in a citrus grove under the Californian sun, its taste was pure pleasure. Tracy handed me another quarter, and when we were finished, we discarded the rind at the base of the tree. I shook droplets of juice from my fingers as Tracy strode on to the next tree. I hurried behind her.

Tracy was keen for me to sample as much as I could stomach. I bit into an acidless Vaniglia Sanguigno that tasted like candy and then nibbled at a Boukhobza that made my lips and eyes sting. The juice from a Moro, a Sicilian blood orange, ran down my hands and a sticky residue gathered beneath my jewellery. “This is a popular one.” Tracey pulled apart two citrus halves to reveal splotchy red flesh in a heart-shaped rind. “It’s called a Valentine.” I ate yuzu from the Philippines and pomelo from Tahiti and soon my lips were numb. “You’ll be glowing in the dark later,” Tracy said with a satisfied smile.

As we explored the collection, Tracy told me about its history, going back to its life as the Citrus Experiment Station on the slopes of Riverside’s Mount Rubidoux in 1907. Eliza’s Navel oranges had sparked a booming orange industry, which called for more experimentation into fruit cultivation, and researchers sought greater knowledge of citrus diversity and genetics. The collection expanded rapidly in the 20th century, and the site is now as much a conservation project as a laboratory. Close to the grove, an enormous translucent structure is being built. Tracy explained that it’s called a Citrus Under Protective Screen (or CUPS), and it will function like a bigger version of what guards Eliza’s Navel tree in downtown Riverside. One of each variety in the collection will be stored inside the living archive, protected from disease-carrying pests which threaten not only this historic grove, but the US’s citrus industry at large. On the way into the Citrus Variety Collection, we had passed signs warning against carrying outside plant life into the compound, which could carry the Oriental fruit fly, citrus’ latest threat. Orange trees in Riverside’s neighbouring country, San Bernardino, were being stripped of their fruit in an escalating war between the fruit fly and the California Department of Food and Agriculture. An invasion of disease into the collection would be devastating.

Tracy sliced her knife into a thin Australian finger lime and squeezed the rind until tiny lime-coloured vesicles of juice spilled out. “Citrus caviar,” she called it. The collection’s researchers had been using Australian finger limes to crossbreed with other citrus, hoping that they will bolster other, more disease-prone species. I nibbled at the end of the strange fruit and its tiny balls popped between my incisors. We tossed away the peel.

In 2006, the collection partnered with the fragrance and flavour company Givaudan. The collection provides a treasure trove of citrus, and Givaudan provides much-needed cash – the CUPS structure is funded by a Givaudan donation. In California, the cultivation of citrus has always been intertwined with commercial industry. In the 1870s, Eliza Tibbets understood that a product of nature could also be a product of capitalism. Southern California’s booming citrus industry was a gold rush. While white Americans cultivated their citrus-exporting businesses, the orange pickers were mostly Chinese immigrants, until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 when Japanese and Korean, and later Mexican, immigrants replaced them. California’s landscape was remade by these orange groves. Dams and canals, railroads and factories shaped towns and cities. Riverside’s wealth flourished from a small round fruit, and a nation’s collective hunger for it.

Before I departed Riverside, Tracy drove me out to the California Citrus State Historic Park, which includes 200 acres of citrus groves, growing Navel and Valencia oranges. The Santa Ana winds had discarded palm leaves across the deserted parking lot. Tracy left me to wander round the visitor’s centre, which outlines California’s small but significant part in citrus’ global story.

Before my trip to California, I had been researching the orange fruit for two years for a book, but that was all theory, history and concept. I knew its journey intimately, but I still followed the trail of museum placards that told me how the orange is the hybrid offspring of the pomelo and mandarin; how it was originated on the Tibetan Plateau, and made its way across Asia; how it travelled the Silk Roads to arrive in Europe, where it gave its name to a colour; how it was cultivated in Versailles’ orangeries for the French king; how it was carried in Christopher Columbus’s ships to the new world, taken to California by Spanish missionaries searching for El Dorado. There were two gold rushes that founded the state: the discovery of golden nuggets in 1848 and the planting of Washington Navel orange trees three decades later.

The orange’s long history led me to Riverside. I was surprised by how moved I was to be so close to the fruit, to be in Riverside, the home of the orange in the US. It is one thing to read a science paper on the taxonomy of citrus, and it is another to pull an orange from its tree, slice into its flesh and place a segment between my teeth. Each bite felt like I was encountering that history with my body, making it familiar.

Before we got back into the car, Tracy pointed out a line of tall palm trees that careened overhead, swaying violently in the breeze. They receded into the distance, in exact increments. “That’s how workers knew where they were.” In the thicket of the orange grove, the palms were a map of the land along the horizon. These two plants – the palm and the orange – have become synonymous with southern California, but neither are native to the region. Instead, they are foreign imports that cultivated the state’s mythology as a tropical paradise at the end of the wild west. Oranges built an empire of industry in California, but the industry waned in the 20th century as groves were razed to make way for highways and amusement parks. Now, citrus farming has moved to northern California, and the southern region finds itself memorialising its formative industry. In Riverside, historical re-enactments of groves and living archives keep the memory alive. But in my mind, I keep returning to Eliza’s tree. It stands alone in the city, a ruin of California’s citrus past, behind a screen and between two congested streets. Eliza’s last tree will never be allowed to die because it embodies Riverside’s 150-year-old history in its boughs. It is a sickly tree kept alive by grafted roots. And yet, every January, it still grows oranges. The people who maintain the tree pick some of its fruit to take home, but mostly it piles up behind its safety screen. Each orange ripens until it falls from its branch, hits the earth, and begins to rot.



Orange Empire: California and the Fruits of Eden by Douglas Cazaux Sackman, University of California Press, 2005

‘Citrus Production in California’ by Daniel Geisseler and William R. Horwatch, published by University of California Davis, 2016. Accessed 15 March 2024.

California Citrus Park website ( Accessed 15 March 2024

The Givaudan Citrus Variety Collection at UCR website ( Accessed 15 March 2024


This article is taken from Port issue 34. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here