The Navel Orange in California by Ella M. Sexton


Who has not enjoyed a juicy navel orange, while wondering at its peculiar shape and lack of troublesome seeds? Yet few people know that this particular variety has brought millions of dollars into our state and made orange growing our third greatest industry.

Read this story of the seedless orange, this "golden apple of California," which was first cultivated by Luther Tibbets, of Riverside, and learn how Southern California has profited by its navel orange crops.

Nearly thirty years ago Mr. Tibbets came from New York to this state and took up free government land near what is now the beautiful city of Riverside. He was one of the half-dozen pioneer fruit-growers of that region, and had noticed at the San Gabriel Mission how well orange trees grew there. His wife and daughter waited in Washington, D.C., until a home should be ready here for them, and they often sent Mr. Tibbets plants and seeds from the Department of Agriculture. To this Department and its gardens in Washington, many curious plants are forwarded from other countries for growing and experiment in the United States. New kinds of grain or fruits are carefully cultivated and watched by the Department, and from it farmers can always get seeds or cuttings to try on their own farms.

Mrs. Tibbets often visited the Department gardens, and in 1873 she wrote to her husband that she could get him some fine orange trees if he would promise the government to take great care of them and to keep them apart from other trees till they fruited. Of course he agreed to give them special attention, and therefore that December he received three small, rooted orange trees. A cow chewed up one of these, but for five years the others were watched and tended. Then sweet white blossoms appeared on each little tree, and afterwards two oranges, like hard green bullets at first. Finally, in January, 1879, Mr. Tibbets picked four large, well-flavored, golden oranges, the first seedless ones ever grown outside of Brazil.

From the hot swamps of the tropical country at Bahia the United States Consul had sent six cuttings of this peculiar orange to be planted in the Washington gardens. All died but the two at Riverside. In 1880 they bore half a bushel of fruit, and the new seedless oranges were talked of throughout Southern California. The other orange growers had been cultivating "seedlings," trees which bore smaller fruit, with many bitter seeds and a thick skin. Many of these growers now cut back their seedlings to bare limbs, and grafted the new orange on these branches. This is called "budding," and is done by cutting off a thin slip of bark with a tiny folded-up leaf-bud on it, inserting the graft in the branch to be budded and securing it there with wax to keep the air out. The little bud drinks in sap from the tree stem, and grows and blossoms true to its own mother tree.

There were few orange groves then, but soon nearly all were budded to the new kind, seventy-five acres being so changed on the Baldwin Ranch; and when these trees began to bear, some five years afterwards, people were much excited over the seedless fruit.


Such high prices were paid for these oranges at first, that orange growing boomed all over Southern California. People thought their fortunes were made when they set out a few acres of small budded trees they had paid a dollar or more apiece for. Whole towns sprang up in dry treeless valleys where only cattle and sheep had pastured, and land worth only twenty-five dollars an acre before the orange excitement, sold quickly for eight hundred and a thousand when planted with trees. The towns of Pomona, Redlands, Monrovia, and others in the orange localities were unknown before 1885, and grew to several thousand population in a few years. Everybody talked of the great profit in orange growing, and people who had nurseries of young trees grown from navel buds made fortunes.

At this day thousands of acres of seedless oranges are in full bearing and no one buys the old kinds. Hundreds of car-loads of the seedlings are not even picked, and ninety per cent of the eighteen thousand car-loads which make the season's orange crop are navel oranges. Over forty-five millions of dollars are now invested in the growing and marketing of this remarkable fruit.

At Riverside, the home of the orange, the two original Washington navel trees still stand. Mr. Tibbets guarded them for years, had them fenced with high latticework, and seldom allowed any one to touch them. He refused ten thousand dollars for them, since for months he sold hundreds of dollars' worth of buds from these parent trees. These two trees and their large family have caused thousands of people to come to the state, and have built up Southern California wonderfully.