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A Brief History of the Navel Orange

In 1909, the orange blossom was officially designated the State flower of Florida. The trees on which the flowers grow were first planted in Florida by Spanish explorers in the mid-1500s. Of course, the trees also yield fruit, and by the 19th century there was thriving orange industry in the Sunshine state.

At present, the United States is the second largest orange producer on the planet. The orange is also the second largest fruit crop in the States, after the tomato. Like most fruits, the orange has many distinct varieties. In this article we will discuss one of the most popular types, the navel orange.

Because the bloom end strongly resembles a human belly button, navel oranges are easy to spot. But their looks became a secondary concern when people actually tasted them. Like other popular varieties of fruit, the navel orange was grown because it tasted different. The navel is said to be sweeter and juicer than other oranges.  It was also seedless, which was quite rare at the time. Where did it come from?

Of the over six hundred distinct orange varieties, the overwhelming majority of them are hybrids. This means that farmers and scientists combine the genetics of two or more oranges to create a new variety. It is a popular and reliable way to design palatable fruit. But sometimes Mother Nature does a much better job than any scientist could do. This was the case with the navel orange which is nothing more than a genetic mutation.

Now, most fruit mutations are failures and are simply discarded. But because everyone agreed that it was something special, they decided to grow it. There was only one problem—the navel orange is a seedless fruit, i.e., it is sterile. Therefore, the only way to successfully cultivate a crop of navel oranges is to graft budding branches onto other citrus trees.

The process was a complicated at first, but once farmers got the hang of it, they were able to grow navel oranges quickly and affordably. The new fruit became one of the most popular varieties of oranges in the world. Farmers and botanists continued to investigate the origin of the fruit without success. In the meantime, large navel orange crops were cultivated in each of the citrus-producing states: Florida, California, Texas and Arizona. 

The navel became the nation’s number one fresh orange crop. There are several reasons for this. The first and most obvious is that they are sweeter and tastier than other oranges. Another is that navel orange trees are easy and affordable to grow using the grafting method. On average, a grafted tree will begin to bear fruit after only five years, while a tree that is grown from seed can take fifteen years to produce oranges.
 

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