Did you get an orange in the toe of your stocking for Christmas? Despite the piles of glistening oranges tempting us year ’round at the grocery store, winter really is citrus season. And oranges, like all citrus fruits, used to be a rare and precious treat – hence the fruit’s appearance in Christmas stockings. Even after oranges became more widely and regularly available in the mid-20th century, my parents still threw a few in my stocking each year (though it may have been an effort to counterbalance my all – Christmas cookie diet of the preceding week).
Oranges are believed to be natives of China. In some languages, the word for ‘orange’ actually means Chinese apple – apfelsein in German and sinaasappel in Dutch, for example. The ‘apple’ name got tossed around a lot in fruit history as many round, brightly colored edibles got tagged with the name before finally getting their own unique identifier.
Despite being linked to apples by name, oranges didn’t travel overland to colonize Asia and Europe like the apple. As Waverley Root notes in Food, “there were no oranges in the hanging gardens of Babylon, they are not mentioned in the Bible, and it is questionable whether the ancient Greeks knew them.” Oranges, instead, came by sea, carried to Europe by Arab traders and explorers. The Romans grew them but they were rare and expensive so they didn’t gain the cult following of the apple, which the Romans cultivated at least 24 varieties. Oranges mostly disappeared with the fall of Rome.
The Moors revived the orange in Europe, conquering Spain and covering the region from Granada to Seville in citrus orchards that remain prevalent to this day. The streets of both cities, but especially Seville, are lined with orange trees that sag under the weight of the fruit in the winter. I made the mistake of eating one of the oranges on a tree in Seville, not realizing they were the bitter, Seville orange that is the principle component of what I only half-jokingly refer to as my mortal food enemy: marmalade. It now made sense why the Spaniards just walked by the free food hanging above their heads.
Christopher Columbus brought oranges to the New World, one of the rare instances of a European explorer bringing something good along with them. Columbus planted them on Hispaniola in 1493, and the climate of the West Indies proved so conducive to the fruit that the islands were soon covered with orange groves.
Hernando de Soto is on record as bringing the first oranges to what is now the United States, though he may not have been the first. Either way, oranges were growing in abundance in Florida by the late 16th century, and the state remains the country’s leading producer of oranges. And the leading producer of Christmas oranges.