Deep Dive: Oranges

California oranges

Today’s post was inspired by a question I received from a reader:

“What’s the difference between oranges grown in California and oranges grown in Florida?”

Great question! In today’s Deep Dive post, we’ll "peel back the rind" to uncover the truth. Below is all you ever wanted to know about the differences (and similarities) between oranges grown in California and Florida. (HINT: they’re more alike than you think!)

An Orange Primer

Jessica Levine picking oranges

Oranges are part of the genus Citrus. Ok, you probably already knew that one. But did you know that the scientific name of the sweet orange is Citrus sinensis? Or that oranges are a hybrid of pomelos and mandarins?

This delicious fruit grows well in moderate temperatures (60-84 degrees Fahrenheit) and needs lots of sunshine and water. They are sensitive to cold, so can’t grow well in winter climates (just like me!). Their growing season is from October through June.

There are dozens of varieties of oranges (blood, ambersweet, and temple, to name a few), but we’re most familiar with navel and Valencia. In the US, navel oranges are most commonly eaten, while Valencia oranges are used for juicing.

Oranges are a major player in our specialty crop sector. In the 2013-2014 year, US citrus was valued at $3.39 billion, which was 9.4 million tons of citrus. Two states play a major role in this industry, you guessed it, Florida and California! Florida leads orange-growing; it produced 59% of the orange crop in 2013-2014. California produced 37%, and Texas and Arizona combined produced the remaining 4%.

A History Lesson

This round, orange fruit is native to Southeast Asia and spread around Asia and Europe centuries ago. In fact, Christopher Columbus brought orange seeds to the new world (Haiti, specifically) on his second trip across the ocean in 1493.

The first orange tree grown here in the US was probably located in what is now Florida and was planted in the mid-1500s by a Spanish explorer named Juan Ponce de Leon.

organic california orange

Florida Oranges

Some people say that Florida oranges are the sweetest and the juiciest oranges available. They chalk this up to the warm and humid environment in which these oranges grow. But, Florida oranges aren’t typically eaten --- of the 14.6 billion pounds of oranges grown in the state on 450,000 acres of land, 90% became juice between 2013 and 2014. Multiple varieties of oranges are grown in Florida, but the most popular is Valencia, which accounts for half of all orange production.

California oranges

California joined the orange game much later. Oranges were first brought to California in 1841 by William Wolfskill, who developed land, planted trees, and created a new variety of orange through hybridization -- the Valencia orange. He named it for Valencia, Spain, and later, Valencia, CA was named for this variety's popularity.

organic orange slices

Interestingly, the Valencia orange that currently dominates Florida’s orange scene, wasn’t even in existence until 1983. It was then that a Florida botanist took the Valencia orange growing in California and developed a healthier strain that thrived in Florida, making the case for Florida to switch to growing huge numbers of Valencias.

California has approximately 180,000 acres of land devoted to orange production and grows about 4.7 billion pounds of oranges every year. It is the number one market in fresh (for eating) oranges and produces mostly navel oranges. The general consensus among orange connoisseurs is that these California navel oranges are not as sweet as the oranges in Florida, but look much more beautiful with a flawless thick orange peel.

Sustainability of Oranges

buying organic oranges at trader joe's

Orange trees are susceptible to pests and weeds, just like any other plants, and so many sprays and treatments are used in orange production. Because oranges have such a thick skin, the sprays used are not believed to travel through the peel into the edible part of the fruit.

If you seek out and buy organic oranges, you’ll be supporting companies that don’t use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides, and these are often the smaller companies.  Organic orange orchards are thought to be better for the environment when considering soil quality, water use, and energy efficiency. They promote biodiversity and minimize monocropping, because other crops are planted in conjunction with orange trees for pest management and soil support.

For two examples of organic orange companies check out Uncle Matt’s and Harpos Organics.

So, We’ve Learned…

Both Florida and California are major players in the orange-growing game and are hugely proud of their citrus. The differences between the climate in these two states leads to different outcomes for the oranges grown -- some end up as juice and some end up on a plate – but mostly, the two states both grow awesome oranges.

So grab an orange, peel back the skin, and enjoy!

Organic california orange slices