Luis Egidio Meléndez: Still Life of Oranges, Watermelon, a Pot, and Boxes of Cake, ca. 1760
The thorn-like spines on the stems nicked me. I had no idea orange trees bore thorns, like the crown of Christ on the cross.
And like Christ on the cross, I bled.
Sucking my finger, I yelped, and Daddy smiled. Sympathy in his eyes.
“Found one of those little suckers, did you?”
“Well, get some antibiotic ointment and a Band-Aid on it, then get back out here and help. There’re only a few more hours before dark, and we need to get as many oranges off the trees as we can, before the freeze starts.”
And Mom’s and Daddy’s grove only covered three acres with a mixture of citrus trees, primarily oranges. Still, a few lemons, limes, and grapefruits stuck out here and there. The dreaded greening disease had yet to make a dent, so the trees blossomed in the spring, perfuming the air, and like a pregnant mammal, became heavy with fruit as summer rolled into fall.
Situated near the St. Johns River, that tiny grove reflected the long history of citrus growing in Florida, attributed, of course, to the Spanish.
Of course, I had no idea of the rich history surrounding me at the time. Of the gilded past of what appeared to be a simple fruit.
But behind that history lies another story, even longer and more convoluted.
For some reason, food historians believe it’s crucial to know the exact origins of the many species of flora and fauna that grace our plates and bowls these days. In the case of citrus, most fingers point to Asia, specifically China.
Adapted from information published by Davies-Albrigo, 1994
John McPhee, in his still-popular treatise, simply titled Oranges, declared that oranges began evolving in the Malay Peninsula twenty million years ago. Long before the continents split apart into what we know today as the layout of our planet. Written works such as Yu Kun (eighth or ninth century BC) and Han Yen-Chih’s Chü Lu (The Orange Record) of AD 1178 mentioned oranges, giving credence to theories of Chinese origin. So much so that the most popular orange variety today is Citrus sinensis, or China Orange, encompassing blood and navel oranges.
Travel and discovery formed the antecedents from which oranges became entrenched in Mediterranean Europe, and later in the New World. As is the case with most plants, animals, and humans, migration routes swept citrus varieties along with them, dropping seeds through processes both naturally and intentionally. Taking root, these trees formed a geographical pattern that measures human migration every bit as much as does DNA testing.
The sweep of history then brought citrus to the Middle East via the Silk Road, where oranges enjoyed a place in the gardens and on the tables of Arab rulers and elites.
You know the rest.
Once the Moors ruled Spain, they planted trees and other plants they could only dream of growing in the stark deserts of Arabia. And once the Catholic Monarchs defeated the Moors in 1492 and bankrolled Columbus’s voyages to the New World, oranges joined the crews on the Spanish galleons. In fact, those early oranges may have kept scurvy at bay. Not until the nineteenth century did the British Navy begin issuing limes as part of their sailors’ rations. But the Spanish had found the cure a few centuries earlier, according to research by Don Julián de Zulueta y Cebrián, “The Spanish contribution to the prevention and cure of scurvy at sea.” That said, it took a while to land on that solution, and Columbus’s crew suffered from scurvy regardless. According to IFAS at the University of Florida, by 1513, Ponce de León had planted oranges and other citrus fruits at St. Augustine.
It took another 300 years before oranges became a truly Florida crop. All that happened after the U.S. Civil War.
But I had no idea about any of that as I cleaned up my bloody finger and hurried back out to the grove, lacy gray Spanish moss tickling my nose as I reached into the shiny green leaves.