What state is known for citrus?

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Citrus arrived in America in the early 1500s but wasn't grown commercially until the 1800s.

Early Spanish explorers (most likely Ponce de Leon) planted the first orange trees near St. Augustine, Florida in the 1500s. Commercial production began nearly 300 years later – after the Civil War – when the development of the railroad allowed citrus growers to ship their products across the country. In 1894 and 1895, freezes destroyed much of Florida’s citrus crops. Not to be defeated, many citrus growers moved south and began growing again. The industry rallied within 15 years and by 1950, more than 100 million boxes of citrus were picked. That number reached 200 million in 1970. Most citrus is now grown in the southern two-thirds of the Florida peninsula, where probability of freezing temperatures is lowest, although Polk County in Central Florida remains the top citrus producing county in the state.

Before the year-round ubiquity of the supermarket orange, December heralded the navel, tangerine, satsuma and clementine season. And it’s still the time when citrus is at its peak, its bright hue and golden taste a welcome contrast to the dark days of winter.

Oranges are so closely linked to Florida and California that it’s easy to forget they are a non-native species. In fact, they were introduced by Spanish colonizers in the 16th century by way of Portuguese merchants trading with the Far East. Orange trees flourished in Florida’s subtropical environment and by the late 19th Century, the roots of the citrus industry as we know it today had taken hold.

Previous to their spread to Europe and the Americas, oranges were cultivated as ornamental plants and for their medicinal properties. In fact, the orange is thought to have originated in Asia around 4,000 years ago, but we probably wouldn’t recognize the modern orange’s forebears.

Citrus has also played an interesting role in globalization, whether through imports from the east during the Age of Discovery or its use as a curative for sailors suffering from scurvy — a Vitamin C deficiency — during prolonged ocean voyages. As world trade has advanced, so has their dissemination, from the Silk Road to modern air freight. It wasn’t really until the industrialized era that oranges became so readily consumed in the form of orange juice, the rate of consumption growing sharply since the 1980s.

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Fun Facts about Citrus:

  • Citrus is actually what is known as a superspecies. Under this technical umbrella one will find the varieties of orange hybrids we know today, whether it’s the popular sweet orange (Citrus x sinensis) or the tangelo (reticulata x C. maxima), which is a hybrid of a tangerine and a pomelo.
  • In many languages, the word for orange literally translates as Chinese Apple.
  • Before the introduction of the orange to Europe, the color orange wasn’t called orange. Apparently in Old English, the color orange was called geoluread — essentially yellow-red.
  • Oranges were once a luxury item and status symbol. Orangeries, a fancy word for a greenhouse for citrus trees, were a common feature of aristocratic gardens in the 17th and 18th centuries.
  • Planted in 1856, the oldest living orange tree in northern California is a historical landmark known as the Mother Orange Tree.
  • To fill the gap in demand during the summer months, oranges are primarily imported from South Africa.

Oranges come in many sizes, but are generally no bigger than the palm of the hand. The smallest are generally tangerines and mandarin oranges, while navels are at the larger end of the scale. As the fruit ripens, orange oil is released from the pores of the skin giving the orange its characteristic fragrance.

When shopping, select oranges that are of medium firmness. If the fruit is too hard or has green spots, it is not yet ripe. If it is too soft or bruised, it is past its prime. All citrus should feel juicy when gently squeezed. Some oranges, like the satsuma and tangerine, have leathery flesh that is loosely connected to the sections of fruit inside. They are easily peeled while other orange varieties require vigorous attention to remove the fruit from the pith (the white part) and the peel. Select oranges that also smell sweet and fragrant and have a heaviness to them. Unfortunately, color is not always an indicator of quality. Some oranges are dyed to fool consumers!

Sustainability of Citrus

Orange trees require a lot of water and are shipped all over the place, so unless you’re in California or Florida, the humble orange racks up quite the environmental footprint. The citrus industry uses a lot of chemicals, too — the Environmental Working Group lists oranges in the middle of their list for pesticide load. Another reason to buy organic, but mostly, to cherish that tangerine in your fruit bowl and don’t waste it — a lot went into it!

In the United States, winter is peak citrus time and the market saturated with the harvest from Florida and California orange groves.

Here’s a good citrus calendar so you know what to look for during peak season!

Citrus and Geography

Most US citrus is grown in Florida and California. The difference between the two states when it comes to citrus production is that the bulk of the oranges produced in Florida are pressed into juice while the bulk of oranges grown in California are for fresh consumption. When oranges are not in season, they are generally imported from South Africa, Chile, Mexico and Australia.

Eating Citrus

Storing Citrus

Citrus is best consumed right away, but some varieties will keep for four to six weeks in the refrigerator.

You’re visiting your favorite online nursery, browsing through the citrus trees, when it happens. Suddenly, your eyes catch the most beautiful Meyer lemon tree! You just have to have it!

You’re currently a resident of Florida and citrus is everywhere, you’re tired of being left out, so you add the tree to your cart and proceed to check out.

Suddenly a dark cloud settles over you. The plant is restricted in your area.

But WHY can’t this tree ship to you? You live in Florida and there are citrus trees everywhere, so WHY can’t this tree come live with you? 

You begin to look at where the location of the tree you’re trying to order comes from. Upon closer inspection, you see that it comes from the other sunny state of California. Now you’re very confused. Why can’t I, in Florida, receive a citrus tree from California?

You may not know, but we do!

What state is known for citrus?

The story of citrus and its shipping regulations began long before your attempt to add a variety to your garden. The beauty of citrus fruits has been gracing humanity throughout the world since roughly about 2,500 years ago. 

Originating from Southeast Asia the growth and development of citrus throughout the world has been strongly tied to its status of prominence and health.

In ancient times of Rome, the fruit was linked to both statuses of privilege and religious significance [1]. In addition, many cultures remarked on the miraculous healing properties of the fruits and even in the United States were a huge component of the expansion of the fruit. 

What state is known for citrus?

Citrus Growth in the Sunshine State

The first citrus fruit to arrive to the “New World” was via Christopher Columbus in 1493. It wouldn’t be until many decades later that citrus would make its way to Florida.

It’s believed in the mid-1500s that Spanish explorer, Ponce de Leon planted the first orange tree in St. Augustine, Florida [2].

The optimal climate of Florida allowed for the success of oranges throughout the state and has resulted in a $9 billion dollar industry. 

Florida now houses roughly 569,000 acres of citrus groves with more than 74 million citrus trees. That’s a lot, I mean, really, A LOT of citrus!

Through the 2018-2019 season, the University of Florida concluded that 9,181,000 cartons of citrus were packed. The economic contribution to the state of Florida was $6.5 billion dollars, with a tax share revenue of $139 million [3]. 

When it comes to drinking your orange and grapefruit juices, Florida is the state to thank! Unlike California, when it comes to fresh citrus juices, Florida provides the largest amount nationwide. 

What state is known for citrus?

In other citrus growing states like California, the citrus industry wouldn’t develop until much later. Seriously, much later. 

Almost 200 years after the first orange is planted in Florida, California finally gets its shot. In 1769 Father Junipero Serra planted the first citrus seed in Southern California [4].   

Less than 100 years later, in 1841, William Wolfskill planted the first commercial orchard of California in what is now the center of downtown Los Angeles [5].

Over the next 50 years, the citrus industry of California would rapidly expand. By 1885 the state had 2 million trees growing citrus.

Ten years later that number doubled and the state was growing 4.5 million trees. 

By the 2016-2017 growing season, citrus was valued at $3.389 billion dollars. While the overall economic contribution was $7.1 billion. The state of California’s GDP benefited $1.695 billion from the industry while the estimated wage contributions were $452 million dollars [7].

So next time, you slice up fresh limes, lemons, and oranges thank California! Unlike Florida, California is predominantly responsible for the fresh citrus fruits you buy at the store.

What state is known for citrus?

It’s All About the Growth Conditions

Around the world, growers plant and harvest citrus. The success of each plant isn’t determined solely by its genetics, but also by the environmental factors that nurture and stimulate the plant to keep it growing. 

Growing citrus requires ideal growth conditions that can only be found in certain growing regions.

As of 2016, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found that 79% of the world’s citrus is grown in the Northern Hemisphere. The remaining 21% is grown in the Southern Hemisphere and predominantly comes from Brazil, who is the world’s largest citrus producer [6]. 

If you were to look at just a map of the locations for each of the regions that grow citrus you would quickly notice a pattern. No matter the country or location in the world, citrus regions are located in coastal regions.

In the U.S. our citrus growing region is known as the “Citrus Belt.” The region stretches along the southern coastal states and provides the ideal conditions for their citrus plantings.

Citrus is very specific to the type of conditions it prefers in order for it to be successful!

These conditions are sandy soil composition and no less than 50% sunshine daily. In addition, the planting location should have excellent soil drainage, and help protect the plants from wind.

What state is known for citrus?

As we depicted at the beginning, it is common for purchasers of citrus plants to become easily confused about why they’re unable to receive a plant, based on where they’re located. With citrus growing in so many states, it only furthers the confusion when someone is told no, to something that grows practically in their own backyard.

But, what many people don’t know is that citrus for many decades has been battling a number of diseases spread specifically by the interstate/intrastate shipping of its plant.

Whether it’s a tree or a seed, the different parts of the citrus plants that have traveled are also the same pieces that threaten other citrus plants and their survial.

Currently, there are four different diseases that are widely regulated between states and countries to protect citrus plants. They are Huanglongbing or citrus greening, citrus canker, citrus black spot, and sweet orange scab.

Each of these diseases is different, but each of them also has the potential to wipe out citrus growth in the United States. 

This very threat to the citrus industry and the livelihoods of those who produce them has resulted in strict legislation passed both on federal and state levels to preserve the citrus industry. 

The legislation and regulatory efforts are made in hopes to prevent the spread of diseases through quarantine, inspection, and eradication efforts. Each of the listed diseases leaves the fruits either susceptible to different forms of stunting or to poor fruit quality resulting in it being unmarketable.  

As we’ve learned in recent months with the spread of COVID-19, diseases have the potential to spread rapidly, and unknowingly.

These dangerous factors are why it is so important to keep citrus trees in safe spaces!

The USDA advises that if you’re growing citrus at home it is best to keep the fruit and plants at home away from potential diseases, and away from healthy plants in case yours unknowingly has a disease.

Another important consumer request from the USDA is to acknowledge the quarantined counties and areas throughout the country where citrus diseases are being isolated [8]. Don’t try to move fruit or plants from infested/infected areas and know that it’s for the good of the fruit.

What state is known for citrus?

These citrus diseases are a stark reminder of the power of contamination and just how easy it can occur. These diseases were spread mostly by unchecked, unregulated plants throughout history. Now decades later, a number of people are threatened by the loss of citrus.

How can you help?  

When ordering citrus online or in person, remember to buy from distributors and growers who are compliant within their regulations.

How will you know if they’re compliant? Compliant growers and distributors will have no problem discussing with you the safety precautions followed and the certifications that the plants adhered to, in order to be sold. 

In addition to asking about their compliance efforts, take the time to learn about your local quarantine regulations. Knowing whether or not your county is under quarantine for citrus can help you prevent the spread of disease.

Another great way? 
Ask if they used Plant Sentry!

We pride ourselves on our compliance and regulatory efforts throughout the industry.

While we work with a number of clients who grow and sell citrus, we, unfortunately, don’t cover everyone in the industry. Be sure to ask the next time you purchase a lemon tree or other citrus varieties if they were checked using Plant Sentry

[1] Holland, B. (2017, July 31). How Citrus Fruits Became an Ancient Status Symbol. Retrieved August 28, 2020, from https://www.history.com/news/how-citrus-fruits-became-an-ancient-status-symbol

[2] Facts About Florida Oranges & Citrus. (n.d.). Retrieved August 28, 2020, from https://www.visitflorida.com/en-us/eat-drink/facts-about-florida-citrus-oranges.html

[3] Economic Contributions of the Florida Citrus Industry in 2018-19. (2020, August 18). Retrieved August 28, 2020, from https://www.floridacitrus.org/newsroom/news/economic-contributions-of-the-florida-citrus-industry-in-2018-19/

[4] Lee, S. (n.d.). The history of citrus in California. Retrieved August 28, 2020, from http://www.californiabountiful.com/features/article.aspx?arID=695

[5] Geisseler, D., &amp; Horwath, W. R. (2016, June). Citrus Production in California [PDF]. California Department of Food and Agriculture Fertilizer Research and Education Program. https://apps1.cdfa.ca.gov/FertilizerResearch/docs/Citrus_Production_CA.pdf

[6] Citrus Fruit Fresh and Processed Statistical Bulletin 2016. (2016). Retrieved 2020, from http://www.fao.org/3/a-i8092e.pdf

[7] Babcock, B. A. (n.d.). Economic Impact of California’s Citrus Industry. Retrieved 2020, from https://citrusresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/Economic-Contribution-of-California-Citrus-Industry21.pdf

[8] Yigzaw, P., Runciman, D., Gateley, D., Burchard, J., C., D., Trees, O., . . . Eldridge, M. (2020, August 12). Citrus Trees: Move It AND Lose It. Retrieved August 28, 2020, from https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2014/08/25/citrus-trees-move-it-and-lose-it