How a Tree Changed California History: The Washington Navel Orange

Every supermarket in the winter months features a pyramid of Washington Navel oranges. The golden orange fruit with its distinctive blossom-end architecture, fragrance and citric tang, reliably wakes up American taste-buds every day. For southern California however, the effect of the Washington Navel goes beyond the mere culinary, this orange was responsible for re-making the landscape and culture of the state.

California was growing oranges before the arrival of the Washington Navel. Father Junipero Serra seeded oranges as he seeded missions and the fruit, along with grapes and pomegranates, was a common part of mission gardens. By all accounts it was not a very inspiring example of the genus, small, tart and full of seeds, despite local growers attempts to improve it.

Oranges were destined to remain a side note in California agriculture until the arrival of the indefatigable Eliza Tibbets. Tibbets had heard rumors about an extraordinary sport of the Selecta sweet orange in Bahia, Brazil. She wrote to her friend William Saunders at the Department of Agriculture in Washington begging for seedlings and accordingly was given three of the first budded saplings available. The remainder was sent to Florida, which was seen as a better growing prospect.

Eliza Tibbetts

Eliza Tibbets was in all senses a pioneer. Born in Cincinnati to parents who arrived by covered wagon, Tibbets was a fierce advocate for universal emancipation, protesting women’s and freedmen’s suffrage in Washington DC in the company of Frederick Douglass. Twice married and twice divorced, she met her match in the prominent abolitionist Luther Tibbets. Together they moved west seeking to establish a utopian society of free thinkers and spiritualists, eventually settling in the pioneer town of Riverside in 1869, when it numbered fewer than 300 souls and was not yet incorporated.

On the Tibbets’ homestead the initial conditions for the trees were less than favorable. One of the saplings was trampled by a cow and did not survive. The Tibbets had no water supply, so the young trees were nourished by dishwater. Night-time temperatures in Riverside sometimes drop below 45 degrees which, says Cheryl Madrigal of the California Citrus State Historic Park, is out of the trees’ comfort zone and can result in changes to the taste and appearance of the fruits. Freezes, though rare, can devastate groves, withering leaves, blighting blossom and killing trees. To this day to protect their trees, growers maintain cold weather watches, but in the late 19th century that meant stoking rudimentary heaters, called smudge pots, to warm the air under the canopies.

The two original trees at the Tibbets’ Ranch

None of this seemed to present a problem for Tibbets, whose trees fruited for the first time in the 1875/6 season, rewarding her care with large, seedless, sweet fruits that peeled easily. They caused a sensation taking every award at western agricultural fairs. The Washington Navel orange can only be propagated by grafting, creating clones that maintain the characteristics of the parent tree, which left Tibbets as the sole possessor of a horticultural miracle. By 1879 she was selling bud wood at trade fairs, starting what has been called “the second California gold rush”. Unlike the first rush for gold in the mid 1800s, this time it was citrus that brought prospectors in their droves.

It was a unique confluence of events that came together to create the massive change that birthed the California citrus industry. While all the Floridian trees failed, the Tibbets’ trees flourished due to the specific environmental conditions of Riverside County. The late Prof. Gumpf of the Citrus Clonal Protection Program (CCPP) said “Riverside is the perfect place to grow citrus. It is hot enough, but not too hot, and it cools at night so we get this perfect bright orange fruit color.”

At the same time the railways were coming west, the Southern California Railroad was chartered in 1880 and by 1885 connected Riverside with the transcontinental system running through Chicago. Fortunately, in addition to its remarkable flavor, the Washington navel has skin thick and pliable enough to protect the flesh and discourage evaporation of the juice during shipping.

In 1889 the first fruit from California to be transported by refrigerated freight car was sold on the New York market. Arriving on the east coast in the depths of winter, the sweet oranges must have been a welcome sight.

Maybe this is where the tradition of placing an orange in the toe of a Christmas stocking began.

The bounty of oranges had a secondary effect of inspiring settlers to migrate west to the perceived Eden of California, where land was cheap, plentiful and fertile. In part the image of California abundance was fueled not only by the fruit itself but also by the fruit box labels. Prior to rail transport, fruit was sold in its own locale. There was no need to label the variety, the grower, or the packer. With rail transport bringing fruit into nationwide markets, attribution was necessary and California’s advertising industry swung into action with idealized images of groves, romantic names and references to western heritage.

Orange boxes carried much more than fruit to the eastern states, they boosted migration to California

California citrus growers organized themselves into collectives in the 1880s and worked to promote both the fruit and the location with arresting graphic arts. They ran joint campaigns with the railways that moved the citrus west and filled the cars with migrating easterners on the return journey.

The success of the fruit prompted a property boom with buyers vying for land for groves and founding new towns. By 1882 there were 500,000 citrus trees growing in the Riverside area. Jobs were plentiful in horticulture and support industries and, as the Washington navel behemoth rolled across Southern California, income soared. By 1893 Riverside had the highest per capita wealth in the United States.

After Eliza Tibbets passed in 1898, awareness grew about her achievements. In 1902 one of her trees was transplanted to a small dedicated plot at the intersection of Magnolia and Arlington Avenues, the second was transplanted by President Theodore Roosevelt a year later, with much ceremony, in what is now the Mission Inn, Riverside.

The huge number of citrus trees in the Riverside area and the need to find out more about their care and cultivation prompted the founding of the California Citrus Experiment Station in 1907, which continues today as a founding part of UC Riverside. In 1920 the trees were added to California’s Register of Historic Landmarks, one of the first designations the state was to make.

Teddy Roosevelt transplanting one of the Tibetts’ trees to The Mission Inn, 1903

And there the story might have ended, except that in 1915 the siblings began ailing, suffering from phytophthora, or root rot. The Mission Inn tree sickened in 1919 - local legend has it that it began failing on news of the death of Teddy Roosevelt. In 1922 the Riverside Press Enterprise broke the news that it had been officially declared dead.

However Riverside Parks Department and the Citrus Experiment Station intervened in the decline of their tree and in 1918 carried out a grafting procedure known as inarching.

During this procedure a ring of phytophthora-tolerant sour orange seedlings were planted encircling the original. The saplings were then grafted into the original tree providing the nourishment for the old tree to remain alive and productive. In 1918 the saplings were supplemented with sweet orange, rough lemon and sour orange.

In 1951 the procedure was carried out again, this time with troyer citrange and poncirus trifoliate orange, as a protection to the supporting system of inarched trees against the citrus tristeza virus.

The Parent Tree in 2000, showing inarching.

Today the Washington Navel is the most widely grown citrus in the world. John Bash of UC Riverside’s Citrus Clonal Protection Program spent 32 years overseeing the health of the Parent Tree he says, “People don’t understand that that’s one of the world’s agricultural icons. There are literally millions and millions of trees that can trace their ancestry back to that single tree.”

The Parent Tree’s current scientific guardian is Georgios Vidalakis. He has the tree’s RNA and DNA frozen in the lab of the CCPP. “We cannot be the generation that does not preserve the tree for the future”, he vows. He believes that, with the lab’s experience, cutting edge science and expert techniques, the tree could survive indefinitely. And in its long and storied life, the tree still holds surprises for those engaged with its care and keeping.

Dr Vidalakis shared the subject of his latest research. The parent navel contains a small nonpathogenic virus, which in the 1980s, the CCPP removed with a method called shoot tip grafting. In the years following the removal there were many strongly worded complaints that the parent navel was not the same any more. Then in 1997, Dr. Semancik, UC Riverside Emeritus, published his findings that citrus viroid IIa was actually beneficial to fruit quality and production.

Dr Georgios Vidalakis prunes the Parent Tree

Dr Vidalakis takes up the story, “ In the 1800s smart knowledgeable citrus people choose this tree as the tree with the best horticulture characteristics for introduction in to the USA. The tree contained a genetic element that, when it was removed by our generations, other smart knowledgeable citrus people detected as a difference in the horticultural characters of the tree.

“Today, 150 years later, we start wrapping our heads around the idea of phytobiome, and how endo- & epi- phytic micro-organisms interact with the tree. Plants are not just standing alone. It appears that 150 years ago the farmers had identified that such beneficial interactions exist. In other words this great-great grandparent of citrus still has a lot to offer.”

In response to follow-up studies the CA Dept. of Food and Agriculture approved an inoculation for farmers to re-introduce this genetic element in to their trees.

So what does the true fruit of the Parent Tree taste like? Back to Dr Vidalakis, “A personal thought every time I taste the fruit from the tree is, why do we need any other citrus variety? This is perfect.”

The parent tree is currently 17ft tall, in good health and still producing fruit in its protected plot at Magnolia and Arlington. The plaque beside it reads, To honor Mrs. Eliza Tibbets and commend her good work in planting at Riverside in 1873, THE FIRST WASHINGTON NAVEL ORANGE TREES in California, native to Bahia, Brazil, proved the most valuable fruit introduction yet made by the United States “ Department of Agriculture. 1920

The Parent Tree commemorative plaque

Sources and images

Monrovia Nursery https://www.monrovia.com/plant-catalog/plants/855/washington-navel-orange/

California Citrus Museum. http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=649

Chester N. Roistacher (retired from the Riverside CCPP ). http://ecoport.org/ep?SearchType=slideshowView&slideshowId=79.

Riverside Local History Resource Center. https://www.riversideca.gov/library/history.asp

Riverside Press Enterprise Archives.

Gordon McClelland fruit label archive. http://art-and-labels.com/

The Eliza Tibbetts archive is held by the University of California, Riverside, CA. (Contact Melissa Conway, Head of Special Collections.)

The Citrus Clone Protection Project is part of the Department of Plant Pathology at UC Riverside. http://www.ccpp.ucr.edu/