Edible Gardening

The History of Amateur Citrus Growing in America

By Darren Sherriff


The word “citrus” starts many people dreaming of a cold glass of orange juice, or perhaps lemonade on a hot summer’s day. Maybe you think of grapefruit hanging from trees while driving through Florida or tangerines dotting a grove in California. No matter where you live, you have either seen citrus growing, know where citrus grows or have eaten a fair share of this versatile fruit.

Have you ever-wondered how citrus fruit got to be in this country and when did it become popular to grow your own? Well, sit right down and let me tell you a story.

Blame it on the Chinese
It all started many, many years ago, the earliest references of citrus being found in ancient Chinese manuscripts and documents, with one appearing in a written record from about 2200 B.C. Then around 310 B.C. citrus really began to get traction in Europe, with the introduction of the pummelo, lemon and sour orange, just to name a few.

The New World Discovers Citrus
Christopher Columbus is believed to have introduced citrus on the island of Haiti in 1493. He brought citrus seeds of sour orange, sweet orange, citron, lemon, and pummelo fruits. Records show that all of these trees were growing well in the American colonies in about 1565 at St. Augustine, Florida, and in coastal South Carolina, mainly Beaufort and Charleston.

Citrus in Continental North America
In his book, Travels, William Bartram stated that in 1773 Henry Laurens from Charleston, South Carolina, who served as a President of the Continental Congress, introduced “ limes” as well as many other different non-citrus fruits into the United States colonies after the year 1755. Then, as late as 1790 in Savannah, Georgia, “oranges were cultivated in some quantity along the coast, and in that year some 3000 gallons of orange juice were exported”. Again, according to Mr. Bartram in that same book.

The citrus industry really took off in and around 1821. The wild orange tree groves that had naturalized themselves were grafted with better tasting cultivars after travelers to Florida realized how wonderful orange juice tasted. That is when shipments of oranges, grapefruit, limes, and lemons began to find their way to Philadelphia and New Yoirk.

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