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A Brief History of Oranges

A Brief History of Oranges

These days, it seems like oranges are everyone’s main squeeze. From juices to jellies to everything in between, there’s hardly a product that hasn’t been kissed by the tropical color.

Oranges have become so ubiquitous it’s easy to forget how exotic their origins are, but the sunny fruits are just as fascinating as some of their more mysterious friends—and their journey from jungle obscurity to breakfast beverage du jour comes with plenty of twists.

A Colorful History

It all started for oranges in Asia, where the fruit tree first bloomed in the region covering modern-day Southeast China.

Small, sour and nearly inedible, the wild orange—officially known as the bitter orange in the scientific community—was never quite cut out for human tastes. So we’re not sure if it was the color that attracted the first orange breeder, or if they just had a good eye for potential.

Whatever it was, we’re grateful, because it’s how we got the sweet orange – those of soccer halftime and fruit bowl fame.

The sweet – and edible! – variety actually never grew in the wild, according to genetic tests. Instead, it was likely engineered in ancient China, where the plant was produced by crossing an early mandarin relative with a pomelo. 

As it turned out, that marriage was a fruitful one—literally—going on to spawn hundreds of varieties of oranges over the years.

And since nothing travels faster than good news (except for maybe bad news) it didn’t take long before the upgraded fruit started growing roots internationally, spreading into the regions covering present-day Myanmar, Northern India and the Middle East.

From there, it was picked up by the Moors, who used the citrusy snack to power their Westward march through Europe. And it wasn’t long before the continent caught full-on orange fever, though the orange crush was particularly strong in Spain, thanks in part to the country’s dreamy Mediterranean climate, which is practically perfect for growing the sweetest varieties.

Among its many fans on the Iberian Peninsula were future conquistadors, who noted the orange’s healthiness, hardiness and relatively long shelf-life, making it a top pick for long sea voyages. 

It was Christopher Columbus who purportedly took the first orange to the Americas, while his predecessor, Ponce de Leon, is credited with planting the country’s first orange tree, just outside St. Augustine, Florida. Meanwhile, other Spanish expeditions shipped the orange out from Europe to South America, Mexico and the U.S. West Coast.

And that’s how a fruit with no edible wild origins circumnavigated the globe, going on to be anointed the Florida state symbol and the best part of any complete breakfast.

Chicken Or The Egg?

That it was genetically engineered wouldn’t be the only thing giving the orange an identity crisis. With the fruit’s name the same as its famous color, one can’t help but wonder: What came first? 

As it turns out, orange, the fruit, beats out orange, the color – by a long shot.

The first official noting of an orange (fruit) in Europe popped up around the 1300s, when it was referred to, in Old French, as orenge – though that term itself was borrowed from Arabic, which calls the fruit naranj. (Not to be confused with – though probably responsible for – the Spanish word for orange: naranja.)

But, tracing the history backwards, the Arabs were far from the first people to be enchanted by the fruit, and they likely picked up their own term for the orange from the Persian narang, which came from the Sanskrit naranga, which was first seen in texts dating as far back as 2200 B.C. 

So what does naranga mean? Apparently, “orange tree.”

We sadly don’t know much about why that name was chosen or where the Sanskrit term originated - but we can be pretty positive that everyone up to this point was talking about a uniquely-colored food. 

Despite its striking shade, the color had apparently not generated enough interest for anyone to bother naming it until the early 1500s, when the first notation of the word orange, the color, popped up in Europe.

So what did people refer to the color as before that?

Language being a living, moving thing, it’s hard to tell, but many linguists say people simply skipped it all together – or, when they really had to point it out, they went full art teacher and used a term like the Old English ġeolurēad, which literally means “yellow-red.”

We bet in Old English they actually called a spade a spade, too.

Dessert for Breakfast

Another reason there may not have been a ready word for orange is because, before the fruit began traveling, there simply wasn’t much of the color around.

Citrus trees were hard to find outside of their native Southeast Asia, and, aside from flowers, which have their own complex naming history, the color rarely pops up in nature.

When oranges first hit the scene they were an instant sensation, but their relative scarcity outside their native Asia made them a delicacy, especially in Europe, where they found a major fan in the famously sensation-loving King Louis XIV.

The French noble’s extra-sensational Versailles was said to have silver-potted orange trees throughout the palace, and its gardens included France’s finest Orangerie, where the fruit could be cultivated year-round to please the court. (A later dispute between Louis and one of his finance ministers reportedly involved the confiscation of nearly 1,000 orange trees.)

Befitting of its status as such a treat, the fruit was customarily brought out as dessert. (We guess the French royals knew all about the ups and downs of eating fruit at night!) But it would take several centuries and a global crisis before the decadent nightcap was watered down—literally—into a breakfast drink.

The orange had nearly always been used for juice, but production of orange juice didn’t kick into high gear until World War II, when the U.S. government was looking for a tastier solution to the vitamin C-rich – though, apparently, flavor-poor – lemon crystal packets that accompanied soldier’s ready-to-eat meals.

The good news was, they came up with a more efficient way to make a shelf-stable version of orange juice – and orange juice concentrate was born. The bad news: The product wasn’t developed until 1949, several years after the war ending defeated the project’s original purpose.

But it wasn’t all in vain. Space Age American families never met a weirdly-engineered product they didn’t like, and they flocked to the new orange juice concentrate, enshrining it in the annals of American history.

Why exactly the drink became a breakfast staple instead of remaining a nighttime treat is a mystery of history. But no matter what time of day it comes around, we’ll always raise our glass to orange juice!

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