Throughout the ages, the fruit of citrus trees has been a symbol of eternal love, happiness, and even holiness. The Japanese believed citrus blossoms represented chastity, while the Saracens believed it was a symbol of fruitfulness. Kings and queens built entire indoor gardens around citrus; Arab women used its essence to color gray hair, and Nostradamus wrote about how to use its blossoms and fruit to make cosmetics. Hercules so valued it, he stole the golden fruit from Hesperides, who protected it as the primary food of the ancient Roman and Greek gods.
The history of citrus stretches farther back into time than what is contained in the story of Florida’s citrus industry. The earliest references to oranges are to be found in ancient Chinese manuscripts and documents, with one such notation appearing in a written record dated about 2200 B.C.
The citron was the first citrus fruit to attract the attention of Europeans, who were seeking trade routes to the Far East and its fabulous wealth. The citron became established in Europe about 310 B.C., and was followed thereafter by the sour orange, the lemon, the sweet orange and, eventually, the pummelo, the earliest version of the grapefruit.
But nowhere on earth, or perhaps even the heavens, has the “golden fruit” held more importance than in Florida, where citrus growing and processing has become a multi-billion dollar industry.
Christopher Columbus brought the first citrus to the New World in 1493. The early Spanish explorers, probably Ponce de Leon, planted the first orange trees around St. Augustine, Florida, sometime between 1513 and 1565. The heritage left behind in citrus was destined to blossom into industries worth billions of dollars.
Grapefruit was a relative latecomer, arriving in Florida in 1806 courtesy of the French Count, Odet Philippe, who planted the first grove of grapefruit near Tampa, Florida, in 1823. Around that time, Florida had established a citrus business in the north, with growers packing the fruit in barrels for boat trips to market.
By the 19th century, citrus trees could be found growing wild throughout many of Florida’s forests, and cultivated orange groves could be found along the St. John’s River and around Tampa. Florida’s unique sandy soil and sub tropical climate were ideal for growing the seeds that early settlers planted. It took nearly 400 years from the time citrus was first introduced to Florida until enough was grown in the state to turn it into a profitable business venture.
Soon after the Civil War, Florida’s annual commercial citrus production totaled one million boxes; it climbed to more than five million boxes by 1893. With the development of improved means of transportation, new markets were opened in the northeastern United States and demand for the refreshing, healthy benefits of Florida citrus started to expand slowly.
The Great Freeze of 1894-95 ruined many of the groves throughout Florida. Production dropped to a mere 147 thousand boxes in 1895. As a result, growers began their gradual move to locations farther south in the state. By 1910, the crops had returned to pre-freeze production levels.
By 1915, production reached 10 million boxes. In 1950, the state’s citrus industry picked its first total citrus crop of 100 million boxes. In 1971, Florida’s citrus growers harvested the first crop to exceed 200 million boxes of fruit.
Although Florida’s citrus industry has encountered more freezing temperatures during the 20th century, the industry has continued to thrive as new groves are planted farther south after each freeze.
Today, there are nearly 4,000 citrus growers cultivating almost 437,000 acres of land in Florida. More than 45,000 other people also work in the citrus industry or in related businesses. The state produces more oranges than any other region of the world, except Brazil, and leads the world in grapefruit production.
All told, the citrus industry generates more than $8.6 billion in economic activity in Florida. As such, the citrus industry plays an important role in the life of every Floridian.
Credit: Florida Citrus Mutual, Lakeland, Florida.