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Missouri Environment & Garden


David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9631

The Christmas Orange

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

Published: December 2, 2020

orange hanging from a tree

The holiday season evokes memories of years gone by and certain traditions associated with this festive time of the year. For instance, as a youngster I vividly remember going to church on Christmas Eve and being rewarded at the end of the service with a small bag containing a modest amount of hard candy and a single orange. Frankly, the candy was more highly anticipated than the orange, but to get the former one had to accept the latter. While we don't grow oranges in Missouri, we do give many of them away at this time of the year. Therefore, December seems like an appropriate time to learn a bit more about one of the world's most popular fruits.

There are numerous accounts of how the gift of an orange became linked with Christmas. Some are more credible than others. Suffice to say that centuries ago in Europe, oranges were considered to be a rare (and expensive) delicacy. For commoners of that era, oranges were likely purchased from traders who imported citrus from places such as Spain, Portugal or southern Italy. Because of their expense, they were considered to be a luxury for people of modest means who gave them as gifts only on special occasions, such as Christmas. Therefore, an orange tucked into the toe of a Christmas stocking was quite a treat.

The common name orange is derived from the Sanskrit word for an orange tree and applies primarily to sweet orange. The latter is a member of the Rutaceae (citrus) plant family and carries the scientific name of Citrus x sinensis. Other members of the sweet orange group include blood orange and navel orange

blood orange

Blood orange

The "x" in its scientific name indicates that orange is a hybrid in origin. Species in the genus Citrus are highly interfertile, meaning they cross readily with one another. In the case of orange, the parental species have been identified as pummelo (Citrus maxima) and mandarin (C. reticulate). DNA analysis indicates that about 25 percent of the genes in orange come from pummelo, while the remaining 75 percent can be traced to mandarin. Other citrus closely related to mandarin include tangerine (C. x tangerina) and clementine (C. x clementina).

Orange is believed to be native to Southeast Asia and has been cultivated as a crop for more than 4000 years. Chinese literature makes mention of sweet orange as early as 314 B.C. Supposedly, by 1000 A.D. orange was the subject of much improvement, as growers sought to produce larger and tastier oranges for the nobility who were very fond of its delightful flavor.

From Southeast Asia, orange was introduced to Spain by the Moors. By the 10th century A.D., large scale production of oranges involving fairly sophisticated growing methods flourished. By the end of the 15th century sweet orange had made its way throughout the Mediterranean region. Its unique flavor caused orange to be coveted by aristocrats throughout Europe. In cooler European climes, the fruit was produced in special greenhouses known as "orangeries."

Spanish explorers are credited with introducing orange to the Americas. Columbus is thought to have planted oranges in Hispaniola during his second voyage and, by the mid-16th century, oranges could be found growing in the warmer regions of South America, Mexico and Florida. From there, Spanish missionaries took oranges to Arizona and California in the early 1700s were the fruit quickly became popular.

Around 1810, a chance happening occurred which changed orange into the fruit most of us are familiar with today. History records that workers harvesting oranges in a monastery in Brazil noticed that one tree had a branch which bore oranges different from those of the remainder of the tree. Upon closer inspection, it was found the unusual oranges actually had a rudimentary, second fruit at the apex of the main fruit. In addition to being easy to peel, the main fruit bore "flesh" that was exceptionally sweet and juicy, but contained no seeds. Recognizing the commercial value of a seedless orange, wood from the branch was harvested and new trees propagated. All bore oranges with what appeared to be a human "bellybutton" at their apex. Thus, the navel orange industry was born. Today, because of subsequent mutations, there are over 50 cultivars of naval orange, which is the most popular type for "fresh eating."

Orange is an example of a non-climacteric fruit. The latter have already done most of their ripening on the tree and will slowly begin to deteriorate after being picked. Therefore, when shopping for oranges, look for fruits that feel heavy for their size and have firm, finely textured skin. Skin color is not a good indicator of eating quality in oranges, since not all cultivars turn uniformly orange when ripe. Although not as attractive, fruits with greenish hues can be just as tasty as those with a golden glow. Avoid oranges that have soft spots or feel somewhat "spongy."

Oranges can be stored at room temperature for about a week, or in a 45 to 48 degrees F. refrigerator for about two weeks. For those whose fruit baskets overflow with oranges this holiday season, oranges can be peeled, quartered and frozen in air-tight containers for later use as juice or in smoothies.

orange juice getting poured into a glass

Oranges are noted for their health benefits. A single orange provides about 92% of the recommended daily amount of vitamin C. Relatively low in calories, oranges have been linked to heart health, blood sugar management and, in a few studies, lowering the risk of cancer. Additionally, oranges contain choline and zeaxanthin. Both are beneficial phytonutrients that perform many functions in humans, including reducing inflammation.

This holiday season, whether giving or receiving a fruit basket containing oranges, think of the utter delight felt by a child centuries ago upon finding an orange in the toe of their Christmas stocking. Like many other things in life today, oranges are something we take for granted.

oranges in a basket

Orange trivia:

  • The color orange is named after the fruit, not vise versa.
  • From a botanical standpoint, an orange is considered a type of berry.
  • Worldwide production of oranges exceeded 46 million metric tons last year.
  • Brazil is the world's largest grower of oranges, producing over 15 million tons annually.
  • Florida produces about 70 percent of the oranges grown in the United States.
  • About 90 percent of all oranges produced are made into juice.
  • Combining juice with fresh consumptions, the average American eats 86.4 pounds of oranges each year.
  • The Guinness world record for peeling an orange is 4.53 seconds.
  • Contrary to popular belief, there are words in the English language that rhyme with orange (e.g. sporange, a term used in botany).

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REVISED: December 2, 2020