Fenced off and wrapped in mesh, a single orange tree sits at a busy intersection in Riverside, California. In a region famous for its citrus industry, you wouldn’t think much of this tiny grove flanked by strip malls. But if you enter the 7-11 across the street—or any supermarket in the country—and buy yourself a navel orange, you’ll likely be eating a descendant of this very tree.
It isn’t just two roads that cross here. Thanks to its ancestral orange tree, this site also lies at the intersection of cosmic chance, thousands of years of human history, and the utopian idealism of abolitionists looking for a new life in the American West. More than a century after it was first planted, this tree still stands, a fitting symbol for the beloved bellybuttoned orange. Because despite repeated maladies that have threatened their existence, navel oranges continue to brighten our fruit bowls. They’re the seedless mutants that are too delicious to let die.
The baseball-sized oranges we enjoy today didn’t arise through natural selection. Sequencing the Valencia orange’s genome in 2012, scientists in China, Singapore, and the United States discovered that the first sweet orange was the hybrid progeny of a male mandarin and a female pomelo—the green, thick-skinned proto-grapefruit—that were crossed at least 2,300 years ago. The (then-seedy) fruit spread through Asia and the Mediterranean, becoming a favorite of nobility by the Renaissance and later accompanying European explorers to the Western Hemisphere. Eventually, one Mediterranean orange, supposedly the seeded Selecta from Portugal, made its way to a mission in Bahia, Brazil. There, something strange happened on one orange tree’s limb.
Sometimes, often due to the radiation from the Sun, the genetic material in part of a citrus tree might mutate, Tracy Kahn, curator and Givaudan Citrus Variety Collection Endowed Chair at the University of California, Riverside explained to Gizmodo. At these “bud sports,” the limb takes on properties governed by the mutated cells instead of the parent tree. Horticulturalists can then lop off the limb, graft it to the root stock of another tree, and create a whole tree of fruit with the mutation.
The Ruby Red grapefruit’s bright flesh is the result of one such random mutation, an attribute that was later enhanced when agricultural scientists exposed graft limbs to radiation to induce further changes. A similar mutation occurred between 1810 and 1820 on one of those orange trees in Bahia and resulted in a true oddity: a seedless orange with a second, smaller orange inside, resulting in a navel-like aperture. An 1871 magazine article described the orange with something approaching awe:
Their great peculiarity lies in the fact that they are seedless, and that each has within it—as in a womb—a smaller orange. [...] In some, the smaller orange seems to be trying to break its way out of its mother.
Visitors to the Bahia missionary soon noticed that this naveled orange tasted better than its un-mutated cousins. Clippings made their way to Australia in 1824 and Florida in 1835. Then, in 1870, William O. Saunders, superintendent of gardens and grounds for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (who designed the national cemetery the Gettysburg Address was dedicated to), received 12 of the trees and propagated them for distribution.
That same year, lawyer and abolitionist John Wesley North, supposedly shamed out of Tennessee for stopping a lynching, moved with his family to California to start a communitarian colony based on the principles of temperance. The town drew other utopian-minded abolitionists, as Elmer Wallace Holmes recounted in his 1912 History of Riverside County, California:
In the first years of the colony there came to settle here a coterie of spiritualists and free thinkers, rather clannish in their ways, all of whom have long since passed away, leaving no descendants here to take pride in this beautiful city whose building they helped to initiate.
Among the first of the clannish free-thinkers to arrive was abolitionist Eliza Tibbetts, a “woman of strong personality and influence in the little neighborhood,” and her litigious husband Luther. One evening, their neighbors Josiah Cover and Samuel McCoy were visiting Eliza and discussed experimenting with new fruits in their new home. According to Holmes, one of the men had read about the Bahia orange in an encyclopedia, which had described the fruit as “the finest orange in the world.” Tibbetts, a friend of Saunders from her time in Washington D.C., wrote at once to ask about the trees. Saunders sent her samples, which she planted on her property in 1873, and which McCoy and Cover tended to, taking buds from the tree to plant seedlings.
The citrus growers in the area quickly took notice of the delicious, seedless oranges, far superior to the seed-filled Mediterranean sweets that they had been growing. Within a decade, the “Washington Navel” oranges, as Tibbets called them, became the most popular orange among citrus growers in the area.
“There are pictures of navel oranges in Europe, and it’s not the first seedless orange,” said Kahn of the ancestral navel orange tree in Riverside. “But the parent Washington Navel is the one that took off.” The navel orange became a romantic symbol of America’s Mediterranean, as synonymous with California as its mythical missions and exotic weather. In 1893, the influx of citrus growers formed a collective in order to increase their influence, calling themselves the Southern California Fruit Exchange—which they changed to the more familiar “Sunkist” in 1908. These growers marketed not just oranges but the sunny California lifestyle to further the fortunes of their crop. Meanwhile, the railroads attempted to woo Easterners to the region by advertising this seemingly magical locale—setting up another gold rush as prospective citrus growers flooded in, Vincent Moses, CEO of VinCate & Associates Museum and Historic Preservation Consultants who curated an exhibit on the orange, told Gizmodo.
But the peculiarities of citrus production have threatened and will continue to threaten the navel orange and its descendants. “This is a monoculture on the mass scale,” Vincent Moses told Gizmodo—all of the oranges have nearly the same DNA. An illness that affects any one orange tree could threaten the crop around the country or even around the world. Indeed, the Washington navel and its descendants have faced several such threats. One, the viral citrus disease called quick decline, plagued the fruit in the 1940s. Combined with rising water prices, many mid-century growers sold their land to developers hoping to capitalize on Los Angeles’ suburban sprawl, reports the Orange County Register.
Scientists at the University of California, Riverside eventually beat quick decline after finding a resistant root stock, but the state’s orange growers have mostly moved northwest to the San Joaquin Valley. Even now, the navel is under threat, as invasive Asian citrus psyllid bugs infect trees with the bacteria responsible for citrus greening. Authorities have now covered Tibbetts’ original tree with a mesh in order to protect it from bugs.
But the legacy of Tibbetts’ tree remains in Riverside, today the largest city in California’s Inland Empire. The University of California, Riverside hosts one of the world’s most diverse collections of citrus in the world, as well as the Agricultural Experiment Station-Citrus Research Center, founded in 1907 as the Citrus Experiment Station. Due to the peculiar way that oranges propagate as clones, all of California’s navel orange cultivars—including the famously pink Cara Cara orange—have descended from Eliza Tibbetts’ trees.
Today, the American orange industry stretches far beyond Riverside, but the city maintains much of the country’s citrus knowledge. And while the passage of time and the emergence other popular oranges may have turned the navel into a lunchbox cliché, millions of happy orange-eaters ultimately have Eliza Tibbetts to thank. Even now, at the corner of Arlington and Magnolia, her tree lives on in the center of the empire it helped create.