If you’ve eaten an orange lately there is a very good chance it was a navel orange. Navel oranges are the most popular eating oranges in the world. They are large, sweet and juicy but not too juicy. They have a crisp texture and are easy to peel. They are also seedless. What’s not to love?
Although many navel oranges are grown in California and Florida, the fruit probably originated in Bahia, Brazil.
Brazil is still the largest orange-producing country in the world, producing well over 20 million tons a year.
The exact origin of the navel orange is shrouded and many different stories are told by Brazilian orange growers. However, it seems likely that the variety originated as a mutation of a laranja selecta orange tree sometime around 1820. In fact, the navel orange is very similar to the Selecta orange and although rare, sometimes a “navel” appears on its fruits. This navel is a rudimentary second fruit which develops at the apex of the main fruit, and from the outside resembles a human navel or bellybutton. For this reason, it was given the name “umbigo de Selecta” in Brazil or “navel Selecta.”
As a mutant, seedless variety, navel oranges cannot be grown without grafting a branch from a navel orange tree onto another tree. This means that all navel oranges today originate from a single Brazilian tree.
Navel oranges were approved for production in the United States in 1870. The U.S. Department of Agriculture obtained cuttings from a navel orange tree in Bahia, and William Saunders, then superintendent of gardens for USDA sent two young trees to Eliza Tibbets, noted spiritualist, rights activist, and suffragette in Riverside, California. The trees were planted in 1873 and began producing fruit in 1875. Three years later these navel oranges won first prize at the Southern California Horticultural Fair.
Although orange, lemon, and lime trees had been grown in Riverside since 1871 and had expanded rapidly, this first navel orange, known as the Washington navel orange due to its government origins, did extremely well: It was seedless, sweet, and, perhaps more importantly, it ripened during the mild California winter. As well, since it was not planted from seeds, as were earlier orange trees, the oranges were dependably similar to one another instead of being diverse and lacking uniformity. As news of the new trees spread, they became so popular that Tibbets was able to sell budstock for five dollars a bud, an extravagant amount. The navel made Riverside the leader in California citrus industry and became the foundation of California citrus industry itself, as well as that of Arizona. Soon, Navel oranges were being shipped in by railroad to the rest of the country.
One of the original Riverside trees was transplanted from the Tibbet’s yard to the Mission Inn, in 1903. President Theodore Roosevelt, who was staying at the hotel durig a tour of the city, was there to dedicate the tree, as shown in the image below. This tree later died, in 1921.
he image below shows the Mission Inn tree in 1910.