Blue skies, green leaves, white blossoms, orange and yellow fruits: it’s a pastoral scene we can all imagine, but rarely get to experience, especially in the megalopolis that is Los Angeles. But here, less than an hour east of downtown LA, in the midst of the suburban sprawl known as the Inland Empire, it’s an experience available to anyone. Here, in Riverside, California’s storied history of citrus comes to life. And a tasty history it is!

Citrus orchards in Riverside

In the early 1800s, an orange tree in a monastery in Bahia, Brazil underwent a spontaneous mutation on a single branch, producing fruit that was seedless, sweeter, juicier, and with a thinner rind than any orange had to that point. As it was seedless and therefore incapable of normal reproduction, portions of this new orange tree were grafted onto existing saplings. In 1873, two of these new “navel” orange trees, so named for the mark similar to a belly button on the bottoms of the fruit, were shipped to Riverside, California, to a woman named Eliza Tibbits. From these two trees and their grafts, every single navel orange tree in California is descended, genetically identical.

Shockingly, one of those two original California navel orange trees is still alive! It lives – and seems to thrive – under protective netting on the corner of Magnolia and Arlington, a simple plaque stating its importance.

The literal ancestor tree

Given this piece of history, it seems no surprise that Riverside is home to California Citrus State Historic Park. (Many would think such a place would be in Orange County, but no, it’s here in Riverside.) Established in 1993, the park celebrates all things citrus, from a museum dedicated to the history of citrus fruits to 150 acres of commercial orange groves (navel of course) to – the highlight – a varietal orchard featuring 85 different citrus species. (Note: there are more than 2600 species of citrus in the world. UC Riverside has the “Noah’s Ark of citrus,” an orchard with two of each species in existence. Sadly, it is closed to the public.)

While the park itself is free to explore outside of a $5 parking fee, it is against state law to pick fruit from the trees. In years past, rangers and volunteers would pick fruits and invite visitors to taste them on the patio of the visitors center. However, given Covid, that is obviously out of the question now. So this year, the park began to conduct free single-household private tours of the varietal orchard. Advance reservations are needed, but those on a guided tour are allowed to pick some fruit to take home!

Eating these kumquats, peel and all, right off the tree is a highlight of a private tour.

Besides various “normal” varieties of citrus, the varietal orchard has some that are a bit less common, or even downright rare. Etrog, a citrus from the Bible used by Jews for the Sukkot harvest holiday, is represented, as is the squid-shaped Buddha’s hand. Palestinian limes (they weren’t in season so I didn’t get to try one) don’t have any citric acid, and finger limes contain lime-flavored balls inside resembling caviar. The michai mandarin can’t be peeled, only cut open, and contains 20 grams of sugar in a tiny fruit. There are kumquats and mandarinquats (another spontaneous mutation, and SO amazing), pumellos the size of your head, multiple species of blood oranges and grapefruits, and so many shapes of lemons it will make your head spin.

Which fruits can you name? This is just a sample of what I came home with.

My guide, Kathy, pointed out the differences between lemons and yuzu (sadly the yuzu was also out of season), expertly weaving us between trees on different levels of the hillside to find her favorites. She told us stories of the origins of some of the rarer fruits, like a pink-fleshed lemon (it juices clear, so this isn’t the true source of pink lemonade). Apparently a woman’s lemon tree had a branch mutate from sunlight reflected from her windows over several decades, producing lemons that end up with pink stripes on the outside and the aforementioned pink flesh.

Can you imagine a more ideal place to spend a day?

A tour takes about 45 minutes to an hour, and ends at a small sink to wash down your fruit before taking it home. My suggestion? Use that time to try to remember which is which, because various species get lost in the shuffle. Laden down with bags of citrus, the biggest task afterward was figuring out what to do with it all. Buddha’s hand vanilla syrup? Why, yes! And, of course, tasting a veritable rainbow of oranges!

Orange rainbow!

For those looking to purchase citrus in bulk, a very short drive will take you to one of any number of citrus stands. I chose Gless Ranch, because they manage the state-owned commercial groves. But it’s good to support the industry in any form, and oranges do taste sweeter directly from the source.

The Gless Ranch stand

California today is the second largest producer of citrus in the country – behind Florida. But the oranges grown here are somehow sweeter, juicier, and more delicious than their southeastern cousins, which lean away from navel oranges and skew more toward the Valencia variety. And to think that these are just two of 2600 citrus varietals on this amazing planet!

On days like this, I consider myself blessed to live in California. And I am equally blessed that the state has seen fit to dedicate an area to teaching those like me about the history of California citrus – and to let us try it for ourselves!

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