One of today's most popular fruits, the orange originally earned fame as a miracle cure for one of the ancient world's most devastating diseases: scurvy. Wealthy Europeans planted early varieties of sour bitter oranges in estate gardens. The orange followed the trade routes around the world, planted wherever conditions allowed by sailors who knew its medicinal importance.
Today, no truly wild orange trees still exist. Oranges probably originated in south Asia--possibly in southern China, Vietnam or the northern reaches of the Indian subcontinent. Vedic Indian records mentioned wild oranges as ingredients in recipes. The use of oranges in Indian cooking and medicine dates back at least 7,000 years. By 1000 C.E., farmers in China established orange orchards and competed to produce ever better varieties of this citrus fruit.
Europe first encountered the orange about 100 C.E. when exotic oranges from southern India became popular with the elite of the Roman Empire. While the Empire flourished, orange groves owned by Roman slaveholders were found from Libya to Morocco. The quality of the local oranges did not match the sweet fruits from southern India. The collapse of the Roman system caused the downfall of the ancient European orange industry.
By 1100, the Islamic civilizations of northern Africa once again exported oranges to Europe. Growers planted seeds of Persian oranges from Spain to Morocco, producing fruit much improved over the wilder earlier varieties. Known as Seville oranges, these new types found use in marmalades, liquor and even as constituents of perfumes.
Sweet orange varieties were unknown in Europe until nearly 1500. European sailors may have returned from India with samples of this fruit as early as 1450. Actual commerce began when Portuguese sailors discovered a new trade route to India around the Cape of Good Hope. Sweet orange groves quickly spread across the Mediterranean region, and the trees traveled to the Americas with European adventurers. Ponce de Leon planted the first Florida oranges in 1513.
Today the orange ranks as the most commonly grown fruit tree in the world. Though the United States and Brazil are the world's largest producer of oranges, the fruit grows in every tropical and subtropical region of the world. Only five varieties of oranges account for the entire American commercial crop. The Valencia cultivar forms a large part of the harvest in both California and Florida. Thought to have been brought from China by early Portuguese explorers, the Valencia was first planted in the United States in the 1870s. Navel oranges developed from a seedless mutant strain discovered in a Brazilian citrus grove in 1820. The Hamlin orange first sprouted in an orchard near Glenwood, Florida, in 1879. The last commercially important American strain--Pineapple--came from another Florida seedling found near Citra, Florida, in 1876.