For most of us the title “Valencia’s Oranges” could be also written as “Valencian Oranges”. Sorry to say, but actually, these are two different (as we use to say) “animals”. “Valencia’s oranges” unambiguously define the origin of these godly fruits – the orchards in the Province of Valencia (after all, this article – similarly as all others on this site, is dedicated to Valencian Foodies). On the other hand, “Valencian Oranges” represent the strain of sweet oranges and do not have much in common with Valencia (as the matter of fact only the name).
For most of us it will be probably quite shocking learning that Valencian Oranges are hybrids developed in mid-19th century in US. The name “Valencian” is rather a recognition of the Spanish province for its contribution to the popularization of orange fruits across the western world.
The “orange tree” is part of the genus Rutaceae (commonly known as “citrus”), including also lemons, limes, pomelos and grapefruit … It is native to South-Eastern Asia (regions of today’s Bangladesh, Southern India and the island of Sri-Lanka). Some claim that ancestors of the orange tree originated from the Malay Archipelago, while recent discoveries also point to the region of southern Himalayas.
The earliest available documents mention that oranges have been cultivated in ancient China already some 2,000 BC. It should be noted however that for centuries, these “ancient” oranges, due to their bitter taste, were appreciated for their ornamental properties and delightful aroma of blossom rather than for nutritious merits.
From China, along the “Silk-Road” oranges found their way to India and then subsequently to the Middle East. From there, with the conquest of Northern Africa and Southern Europe by Moors (8-15th centuries) oranges were brought to Sicily, as well as today’s Italy and southern Spain (at the time known as Al-Andaluz). While centuries of cultivation efforts helped to develop “milder” version of oranges, those were still rather ornamental trees with fruits eventually used to add acidity and sour accents to dishes, for aromatic oils and finally – for medicinal needs.
Sweet oranges with the taste “closer” to what we enjoy today, were developed by means of breeding and natural hybridization in Southern India. They were brought to the Western Europe in the 16th century by Portuguese merchants. Just for reference – the new maritime road to Far East discovered in 1486 by Portuguese explorer Bartolomeo Diaz quickly took over much more dangerous and difficult Silk Road as the main road for commercial exchanges with the East. Since then, nothing was the same (and that applies also to our main subject – oranges).
The next important step leading us to Valencian Oranges was undertaken by Columbus and subsequently by Portuguese explorers. The first brought the orange seeds to Antilles from where they “migrated” to Florida and then to California. The latter started planting orange orchards in South America (today’s Brazil). Frankly, at this point it was still not a commercial effort, but rather practical way to protect sailors from scurvy.
Oranges brought by Spanish merchants to North America found fertile lands and suitable climate in Florida and California (as a matter of fact today these are leading states in production of oranges in USA). However, the real revolution in the orange industry happened in mid-19th century when the American agronomist William Wolfskill (1798–1866) on his farm in Santa Anna (California) hybridized a version of sweet, juicy oranges ripening off “regular season”. The latter property (ripening from spring through early fall) was a winning lottery ticket given the fact that all previously known cultivated versions of sweet oranges were ripening in the winter. This “discovery” largely extended the period of availability of fresh oranges almost throughout the whole year literally opening the new era for the orange industry. To fully understand the importance of this extended ripening season we must notice that oranges are the best when ripening naturally on the tree. If harvested earlier, the godly fruit does not offer its full benefits.
This new version of oranges was “baptized” Valencian Oranges in recognition of Valencia (Spain) for its leading role as a producer and exporter of best sweet oranges in the world.
William Wolfskill patented his hybrid Valencian Orange and shortly after sold it to the owner of Irvin Ranch. Convinced of future commercial success, the company planted most of its land with Valencian oranges. In fact, years later this branch of the Irving Ranch became a widely recognized US champion of orange-flavored soft drinks known as Sunkist.
Soon after, orange plantations took Southern California by storm. By the beginning of the 20th century tens of thousands of acres of land were converted into orange groves. The lasting “fruit” (and witness) of the “orange fever” is the name “Orange County” given to one of the regions in California.
Since then the Valencian oranges conquered the whole world and today are cultivated not only in US (Florida, Texas), Spain (Valencia) but also in Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Egypt, Turkey, Italy, South Africa, Morocco – to name only the biggest producers of these fruits). Of them, Brazil (state of São Paulo) is the biggest producer of oranges in the world.
Sadly, by the end of the 20th century, the cultivation of Valencian oranges in California was dramatically reduced due to the skyrocketing price of land caused by accelerated urban development.
Typically, Valencian oranges are grown for juice (especially in the US, where the orange juice was attested already at the beginning of the 18th century and over time became one of the favorite drinks). They have thin skin, excellent taste, aroma and color what makes them also desirable for direct consumption and are juicy.
Typical Valencian orange has an average diameter from 70 to 76 mm (2.7’ to 3’), weight about 95-100 grams (around 3.4 oz), has about 45 calories and up to 10g of sugar. What differentiates it from other oranges are seeds. They are seedy oranges with number of seeds varying from one to nine.
In mid-20th century, the US botanist Lena B. Smithers Hughes (1905–1987) developed the virus-free versions of the Valencian oranges. It was such a success that today these strains of Valencian oranges make overwhelming majority of oranges cultivated in the US. Her work is considered as “one of the most significant developments in the orange industry” originated in Orange County (CA), and often compared to the achievements of William Wolfskill.
To track the “roots” of Navel Oranges we must go to Cabulla (Province of Bahia – Brazil). As the story goes, at around 1820’s, a natural mutation of “Selecta” oranges brought to life a new strain. Due to their physical appearance characterized by a second, small, underdeveloped “twin” fruit on the opposite side of the stem that from the outside looks like human bellybutton (navel) they quickly gained the name “Navel Oranges” (in Brazil – “Selecta de Umbigo” what means “Selecta’s Navel”). It’s exactly this physical curiosity that brought attention of locals the new fruits.
While the whole story is quite obscure, the truth is that oranges Selecta (“Laranja Selecta” in Portuguese) in many aspects are very identical to navels. Although normally they do not show any trace of “navel”, occasionally they may grow an extra “twin fruit” although it will not protrude through an opening in the form of “bellybutton” as it is seen in navels. To make this story even more confusing, we must mention that the “roots” of Brazilian Selecta oranges (apparently ancestors of navels) are also lost in the “foggy” past. What is certain – they were brought to today’s Brazil from the Iberian Peninsula by Portuguese colonizers.
The new variety of oranges slowly but surely gained appreciation between locals in Bahia. But de destiny of “Selecta de Umbigo” was shaped some 50 years later when three small “navel trees” were sent to the US to a fellow named William Saunders (Superintendent of Gardens for USDA). He in turn gave them as a gift to his friend Eliza Tibbets (Riverside, California). Now “things” moved fast – in 1870, navel oranges were approved for the production in the US, then by the end of 1870’, navel oranges won the prize of excellence at the Californian Horticultural Fair. The rest is history: Tibbets got a “Golden eggs chicken”, while California and the whole world – one of the best strains of sweet oranges.
Navel oranges do not have seeds, so they must be grafted onto another tree to reproduce. As a result, all navel oranges can be closely traced to the single, original Brazilian tree that underwent this “beneficial” mutation (in other words they are clones). The practical outcome is that all navel oranges have strong “uniformity” (highly appreciated property especially in our industrial era). In other words, they have almost identical physical characteristics (shape, size) but also taste, chemical composition etc… .
They are sweet, moderately juicy, have crisp texture, are easy to peel and in contrast to Valencian strain, they ripen in the winter (December through March), so often they are called Winter Oranges). They taste slightly sweeter than Valencian and are often consumed fresh, out of hand or in salads.
In Brazil, they are called Bahia Navel oranges, in the US, they are sometimes referred to as Washington Navels (as a tribute to government’s jumpstart support), in the whole world just “Navels”.
Summarizing: today there are some 600 types of oranges in the world. All of them are classified in three groups, correspondingly:
Sweet variety (Citrus Sinensis)
These are the “Queens” of all oranges. Sweet, highly fragrant, they are used for direct consumption – either fresh from hand or in form of juice. Mentioned above Valencian and Navel Oranges are the most popular in this group and make overwhelming majority off all cultivated oranges in the world.
Note: In recent years, scientists studying the orange genome, came to the conclusion that the common sweet orange is a backcross hybrid between ancient pomelo and mandarin.
Sour variety (Citrus Aurantium)
They are bitter and so rarely eaten fresh, cultivated mainly in South Africa, mostly used for marmalades. Bergamot Orange is the most popular strain of this class of oranges.
Loose Skinned variety (Citrus Reticulata)
Smaller is size than common oranges, they are easy to peel (the name “loose skinned” obliges). Their taste ranges from sweet to sour. Most popular in this group are Mandarins and Clementine.
At this point it should be obvious that Valencia’s oranges (determined by geographical location of plantations) are not necessarily Valencian oranges (determined by strain), although surely, the latter variety made its way over the Atlantic back to the Province of Valencia.
On the small-scale citrus fruits were already cultivated in Valencia since the arrival of the Moors. Francesc Eiximenis (one of the most famous Catalan writers of his time) in his “Regiment de la Cosa Publica” (1383) on the list of some 30 fruits cultivated in the Kingdom of Valencia mentioned “arranges”. Obviously, those were still ornamental-type versions of oranges characterized by bitter fruits. The best example of such practice was Cordoba’s mosque courtyard – it was lined with ornamental orange trees. Valencia also followed this trend – its Silk Exchange Market had its own orange courtyard.
However, for the real breakthrough in the cultivation of oranges, Valencia had to wait till the end of the 18th century. In 1781 in Carcaixent (Ribera Alta), the first modern-day commercial plantation of sweet orange trees was established thanks to combined efforts of an unusual team including: parish priest Fr. Vicente Monzó as well as local clerk Carlos Maseres and pharmacist Jacinto Bodi. By grafting carefully selected strains of citruses, Fr. Monzo brought to life a new variety of large, sweet oranges. The mentioned individuals (C. Maseres and J. Bodi) joined the business bringing experience and funds required to develop orchards, wells and irrigation systems fed by nearby Jucar River as well as to organize export.
This step marked the end of the mostly “ornamental” era of orange trees and started the commercial one focused on fruits. By the middle of the 19th century, Province of Valencia became the Orchard of Spain. As a matter of fact, these days the coastal area stretching from Plana de Castellon to Valencia is often referred to as “Costa Azahar” (Coast of Orange Blossom).
The mythological “golden apples” previously available only to Olympian gods, then earthly delicacy adorning aristocracy’s gardens and tables started their triumphal march across local and European markets (note that the first transport of Valencia’s oranges landed in London in 1851). To bring you back from the heights of the Olympus let’s make it clear – these Valencia’s oranges were representing local varieties of sweet oranges like Setabense and Saguntina. What we call today Valencian Oranges were still waiting for their “ripe-time” on the other side of the Atlantic.
Oranges became the pillar of the Valencian economy, bringing richness and with it fast growing urban development characterized by many architectural marvels. Not accidentally, facades of many historical structures (like for example Estacion del Norte, Mercado Colon, Mercado Central….) have orange motifs.
Varieties of oranges grown in Valencia
- Family of Navel Oranges (Naranja Navelina)
The group includes different varieties – mostly linked to the famous Bahia Navel oranges. They came to Valencia in 1930’s and locally are known as Navelina (basically the original Navel orange), as well as altered versions like Navel Late (smaller size, fruits can stay longer on the tree still preserving the juice) and Navel Lane Late (also smaller size compared to original navel orange, with less pronounced “bellybutton”).
- Family of Valencian Oranges (Naranja Blanca)
The group represents the famous Valencian oranges developed in US. The most popular strain is called Valencia Late. Fruits are medium-sized, mainly used for juice characterized by pleasant aroma and reduced amount of acid. Other strains include “Naranja Salustiana” developed locally in 1940’s. These oranges usually harvested from January through March are mostly used for juice.
And here is a tip for readers: Those “unfamiliar” with the matter should try Valencian drink known as “Agua de Valencia”. It is a locally-invented cocktail based on orange juice, cava (local sparkling wine), spirits and some other “secretive” ingredients that contributed to its “fame” well beyond the borders of the city (see Agua de Valencia) .
- Family of Blood Oranges (Naranja Sanguina)
This group of oranges is characterized by reddish color of pulp and often also of skin (hence the name). The reddishness is due to the red pigments (anthocyanins). They can be synthesized only in lower night temperatures, for this reason, they can only be cultivated in Mediterranean type of climate. Most popular members of this group are Mandarin, Tangerine and Clementine.
Valencia, for valid reasons is often called the Garden of Spain. Fertile soil, relatively mildly warm and “wet” climate (with the exception of a few weeks in summers), fresh, gentle breezes from the sea, availability of water (good by Spanish standards), effective irrigations systems etc… make the province suitable for agriculture. For these qualities, Valencia was already recognized by Moors. Back in the 11th century they developed here “intensive” agriculture based on sophisticated network of irrigation canals and wells. In fact, what may surprise unaware readers – the region of Albufera (next to the city of Valencia) is the rice-basket of Spain and the base for famous Valencian Paella (see Valencian Rice and Paella).
This type of land and climate, favors growth of sweet oranges with intense flavor and minimum acidity as well as firm, smooth skin characterizing Valencia’s oranges. On top of direct consumption of fresh oranges or juice, orange branches are also traditionally used for fire when making paella (it gives paella its unique flavor).
It’s also worth mentioning that following centuries old traditions, Valencian’s orange trees are still used for ornamental purposes. Bouquets from blossoming orange trees are often used as a symbol of love (the sweet-scented one!).
Final note: Spain is the largest European producer and exporter of oranges. And 75 percent of them come from Valencia. The remaining oranges grown in Seville are mostly used for liquors, marmalades, and essential oils…..
Etymology of the name “Orange”
Etymologists point to Arabic (“naranj”) and Persian (“narang”) roots – both taking from Sanskrit word “naranga” for orange tree. Europeans altered the word to “naranza” (Venetian), “arancia” (Italian), “naranja” (Spanish). Widely accepted these days the English name “orange” seems to be a modification of the above with an extra step of removing the initial “n” to simplify its indefinite form (note that “una naranja” sounds as good as “an orange”).
Less accepted etymological version is the French root pointing to the word “Or” (meaning “gold”) leading to the name “Pommes d’orenge” – as these fruits were initially called in Medieval France. Some suggest that this name was directly taken from Greek’s mythology (apparently, “Golden Apples” flourished in the Garden of the Hesperides offering “earthly” pleasures to Olympian deities). In fact, oranges were known in ancient Greece thanks to conquest of the southern Asia by Alexander the Great. But their role was rather limited to serve the needs of mythological goddesses and nymphs.
And to finish with the etymology of “orange” – linguists overwhelmingly agree that the proverbial “Chicken & Egg” dilemma does not apply to the word describing the name of the “orange” color. It was derived from the color of the orange fruits in early 16th century, reflecting the impact of their already lasting presence on western markets.
Other major commercial varieties of oranges:
They are smaller than common oranges and oblate rather than spherical. They are tender, sweeter than oranges, their skin and white fleshy layer under the skin (mesocarp) are thinner, so mandarins are very easy to peel. They also easily split into segments. No wonder, they are mostly eaten raw out of hands or in salads.
Regarding the name “Mandarins”– it seems to be related to the color of the robes worn by Chinese scholars (In Europe known as “Mandarins”). This association reflects deeply “engraved” in West-European consciousness perception, that oranges were part of the Chinese “landscape”.
Tangerines are hybrids of mandarin oranges. As such they share most characteristics of mandarins (smaller, less spherical, easy to peel and sweet compared to common oranges). The name “Tangerines” reflects rather their geographical origin (area of Tangier in Morocco) than a separate class of oranges. While similarly as mandarins, tangerines are mostly eaten plain, they are also available in the form of juice.
Clementine is a hybrid version of tangerines. It is attributed to the works of Vital Rodier (Brother Marie-Clément in his monastic life as a French missionary in Algeria), carried out at the turn of the 20th century. This species of tangerine is characterized by more reddish color and delicious taste. As it is easy to guess, this new “subclass” of mandarins/tangerines was baptized “clementine” in honor of its creator – Brother Clement.
It may be worth to note that mandarins (including tangerines and clementine) do not have seeds. They reproduce by grafting their branch into another tree!
Health Benefits of oranges
Since long it was known that oranges are beneficial for health. After all, the main reason of planting oranges in the New World (Americas) was to prevent scurvy among sailors. In fact (what was not so obvious in the time of Columbus, Magellan, or Cook etc…) the typical sweet orange is a source of Vitamin C (more than 100% of a daily norm). It also contains dietary fiber, potassium, calcium, vital biologically active compounds (choline, folate, thiamine, niacin, limonoids…), small amounts of vitamin A and B, iron, magnesium and (as expected from “sweet” oranges) – considerable amount of sugar. While these days “sugar” does not sound like a “healthy” component, it is worth to note that oranges have low glycemic index when eaten raw (high amount of fiber slows digestive process and by that – the intake of sugar). However, when oranges are consumed in the form of juice, due to the lack of fiber (removed by centrifugal-type juicers), sugar is quickly absorbed resulting in steep rise of its level in our organism (as a matter of fact this is a common effect of all fruit juices).
On the conservative side, both – sugar and sizable acid-content may have negative impact on our organisms, so as everything in life, the daily consumption of oranges should be kept at the “reasonable” level.