While I was wary of the nopales when we moved here a decade ago (see N Is for Nopales), I was really looking forward to having an orange tree. What could be more California than fresh oranges from your garden? Well, if I’ve come to be a friend of the nopales over the years, I’m even more in love with the orange than I was at first sight.
Unlike the Meyer lemon that I grew from a seedling seven years ago, the orange tree was here when we arrived, and with a few late season oranges still on the branches. The variety is the most popular in California, the Washington navel, which derives from a mutation of the Selecta orange that occurred between 1810 and 1820 in Bahia, Brazil. Cuttings from the mutation were brought to the US in the 19th century, specifically to Washington, DC, hence the name. The Washington navel came to California in 1870, to Riverside, where the California orange industry was born.
What makes navel oranges special is that they are seedless, as you probably know. By being seedless, the tree is sterile, and new trees come about only by grafting onto rootstock. That means that all navel orange trees are clones from the original tree in Brazil.
The “navel” of the navel orange is actually a small second orange attached to the larger orange. The stem attaches to this navel, which in some oranges can make up to a third of the entire orange, as you can tell by slicing the orange in half and observing. In other navel oranges, the navel makes up just a tiny portion inside the orange.
A Year-round Season
As with so many of my plants, our orange tree has taught me much. Among the most amazing features is that the season for each orange may last more than a year, with the new buds appearing while some of the previous year’s oranges are still ripe and luscious on the tree, as the photo below shows, taken in March 2016.
The oranges move from bud to blossom to tiny green fruit over about a month–from March to April in our region–then enlarge through the summer and into the fall, staying a deep green.
Into the fall, the color changes from green to yellow and finally to the orange we know so well, by early December.
The early December orange oranges are edible–more tangy than sweet–but I’ve learned that the delectable sweetness of these navels gets more and more intense through the Northern California winter, so that by February they are at their peak of flavor.
But miraculous to me is that the oranges left on the tree into March and even April can maintain their sweetness and juiciness–even as the buds for the next year’s crop are popping forth all over the tree. I love to contemplate the silent, complex chemistry of each brilliant globe, which, even as the months grow warmer, can keep the juice and sinews inside supple and cool and steady. (See the three pictures below for the stages of the fruit).
And then there’s the two-year cycle…
Early on in our life in California, I attended some classes on caring for orange trees, and I learned, among other things, that oranges will not grow on the same spot on the tree two years in a row–in effect, each area of the tree has a two-year cycle, one year on, one off. Which means that a bumper crop one year will be followed by a meager crop the next. In 2014-15, for example, we had a very large crop–two hundred oranges or more–despite our having had a very poor rain season that year. In 2015-16, with a better rainy season, we nevertheless had far fewer oranges–fewer than 100–and elsewhere on the tree than in the previous year.
Then, in 2016-17, my expectation of a large crop was dwarfed by reality. The size of the crop is indicated by the pictures above, especially by the pic of the new white buds in March 2016. The tree was covered by white in March and then by many hundreds of tiny green fruit in April.
The Rains of January. Then, in late fall of 2016, with hundreds of now orange fruit on the tree, the rains began (as I’ve recorded in the entry “J is for January”), by far the heaviest in our years here, and the highest in the region sine 1982-83 (45 inches for the ’16-’17 season, more than twice the average). By January 2017, our daily effort to bring in ripe oranges was competing each day with rain-pelted oranges falling to the mushy ground, where they would rot with amazing rapidity. Nevertheless, we enjoyed at least 200-250 delicious fruit, as described below.
The upshot? Well, following the pattern of year on, year off, the 2017-18 season promises to be a very light one indeed, given the 2016-17 bumper crop. As predicted by the very meager showing of white buds in March, the next year’s crop may be our smallest in the years we’ve been here. One year on, one year off.
A Tip on Pruning. If you’ve followed this blog, you know that our orange tree grows between the dangerous nopales and the friendly peach tree, with some branches of the orange and peach intermixing. Early on in our California years, the orange tree grew more heavily toward the nopales side (Eastern exposure), so much so that, when laden with fruit, the orange branches on the heavier side hung almost to the ground. I used notched wooden slats to hold up the branches.
By pruning the tree substantially on the nopales side, I was able to coax the tree toward balance between the sides, and I’ve had no need for branch support in the past four or five years–even as the tree has grown larger overall.
Also, during the summer, when the tree puts out new leaves and the branches extend, the gap we need for walking between the orange and the risky nopales narrows. Fortunately, trimming back the new growth on both plants poses no risk to either plant, so the walk can stay open.
Oranges in the Kitchen
With oranges and meyer lemons in abundance from December through March, our citrus needs are fully or substantially met, depending on the size of the crop. Our major use of the oranges you can see in the photo above, and there’s nothing tastier than fresh orange juice, fresh lemonade (with sugar added), or the two mixed together.
But oranges just off the tree, sliced in quarters and devoured, are great, too. Besides, what’s more warming than a sunny display of freshly-picked citrus in the winter kitchen?
Update, December 2017
Until the end of November, the tree looked as if there were no new oranges for this season, as I’d predicted when I did not see any blossoms this spring. But as has happened in some earlier years, after bumper crops the season before, the late autumn shows us that, yes, there are oranges on the tree. This November, just after Thanksgiving, I saw two oranges–huge, at least six inches in diameter, on the ground, in the jasmine ground cover beneath the tree. They were bright yellow, about average color for late November, and I figured that they had fallen because of their size before fully ripe. So I brought them in and hoped they’d ripen more over the next week or two.
Then a third appeared on the ground, and then over the next few days, I spotted about ten more, all monsters, and all in the higher and back portions of the tree, where I couldn’t see them while they were still unripe.
They are still on the tree as I write this, but now, in December, they are bright orange and ready. I’ve opened two of the fallen trio and they are deliciously sweet and juicy, having benefited from the extra time indoors.
Am I surprised by this year’s bounty? Yes–but I shouldn’t be. There have been oranges every year. Always in spots where they didn’t grow the previous year. Further, I should have expected them to grow there they did, because the higher and back parts of the tree face South, our best sun direction. I didn’t see them because that part of the tree is along the fence. So my neighbors saw them growing fat and mammoth, but we didn’t.
I won’t doubt the tree again, and am looking forward to a bumper crop again next year.