An Abridged History of the Orange

The history of the orange is a winding tale of war, merchants, exploration, and more. Though there is still debate and discussion regarding the early history of the orange, written in this post is an abridged history.

Photo by Ellen Levy Finch
Photo by Ellen Levy Finch

The origins of the orange can be found somewhere in Asia. “Somewhere” is used here because it is unknown just where the wild orange began. Most scholars agree that the orange began somewhere in Asia (from Northern India to Southeastern Asia). The earliest confirmed reference to oranges can be found in a history of Chinese Emperor Ta Yu’s reign (2205 to 2197 BCE):

The wild people of the islands brought garments of grass, with silks woven in shell-patterns in their baskets. Their bundles contained small oranges and pummeloes, rendered when specially required.

  –Tribute of Yu in the Book of Xia (fifth century BCE)
Yu the Great was also responsible for the introduction of flood control
Yu the Great was also responsible for the introduction of flood control

Oranges found their way westward during the time of the Roman Empire. Arab traders and merchants brought oranges (as well as lemons) to the Mediterranean. These oranges were not sweet though. They were as bitter as lemons and used for medicinal purposes rather than as an enjoyable snack.

Sogdian merchants worked along the Silk Road, and were likely involved in the spread of oranges
Sogdian merchants worked along the Silk Road, and were likely involved in the spread of oranges

Though there are many theories regarding how, sweet oranges arrived in the west around the 15th century. One of the more accepted theories involves Spanish merchants. After finding a route around the Cape of Good Hope, sailors were searching for a way to prevent scurvy. Spaniards brought sweet oranges from Asia, and planted them along the coasts. Any stop they made had sweet oranges with Vitamin C!

Portugal also had a large hand in trading oranges. Depicted here are Portuguese ships heading to the East Indies. Americae Tertia Pars by Theodore de Bry
Portugal also had a large hand in trading oranges. Depicted here are Portuguese ships heading to the East Indies.
From Americae Tertia Pars by Theodore de Bry

Once sweet oranges reached Europe, they became immensely popular. First in the private gardens of the rich, eventually spreading to all. From this point, the migration of the orange becomes much more clear. Trade routes through Europe, and eventually to the Americas, brought oranges around the globe. If you are interested in hearing more about the history of citrus, I highly recommend reading Herbert Webber’s book History and Development of the Citrus Industry (available free online!).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *