Just the other day I was asked that question, and why not, after all, the Navel Orange is the most popular orange in the United States, so it is not odd that people want to grow their own. But I always have to answer the same way, “Sorry, but you can’t get seeds to grow a ‘Navel’ Orange tree. It cannot be grown from seed!” Surprised? I was, so I had to do a bit more digging into the topic.
Orange historian Vince Moses gave me the answer. He lives in Riverside, California, the navel orange's Shangri-La, and he has done plenty of navel gazing. "That appearance of a navel on the orange is the result of a mutation," Moses explained, “The mutation created a conjoined twin, an underdeveloped second orange at the opposite end from the stem.”
It looks like a human belly button, but Moses explains "It is in fact a small, second orange."
And the mutation that started it all? A single branch on a sour orange tree in the garden of a monastery in Brazil.
A Presbyterian missionary chanced upon it in the mid-1800s. It intrigued him that not only was the orange unique in appearance, but it was juicy, sweet, and had no seeds. He made a cutting, propagated some little trees, and sent them to William Saunders at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington DC.
"Because the navel orange through that mutation is seedless," Moses says, "all of the navel oranges that we see in grocery stores today are genetically identical with the original orange."
That's right. The produce aisle is filled with clones of that one mutation from Bahia, Brazil. Of course, a seedless orange has no way to reproduce naturally, so a nurseryman has to give Mother Nature a little assistance, which is just what Saunders did at the USDA back in the 1800s.
The only way to grow more navel oranges is to separate a blossoming bud from an existing navel orange tree and unite it with another compatible fruit tree’s trunk or root. This process is called grafting and is only successful if the grafted fruit trees are compatible with one another. Since navel oranges belong to the same species as grapefruits, lemons, and limes, they can be grafted with any of these.
Eliza planted the saplings in the yard of her new home in Riverside, California and lovingly cared for the little things, even using her dish water to keep them watered. Soon two of the three started producing fruit, just a few at first but then by the bushel full. If there was a third tree, it's said to have been trampled by Tibbets' cow, but either way, two trees grew to maturity. Fruits from those trees, seedless, as predicted and as promised, turned out to win the grand prize in a citrus fair in the Riverside area, and were declared the ‘most spectacular citrus fruit anyone had ever seen or tasted.’ There you have the rise of what became the immensely successful commercial navel orange industry.
Mrs. Tibbets success growing these trees spread, and in no time at all other California orange growers decided to take buds from her tree to grow navel oranges as well, since the California climate proved perfect for them. While in 1848, thousands of people rushed to California after gold was found, the real ‘California Gold Rush’ occurred in 1882 when California was home for over 500,000 growing citrus trees, many being grafts of Eliza’s navel oranges. This variety of navel orange became known as the Riverside Orange, but its name was later changed to the Washington Navel Orange and it is now the most popular type of navel orange in the world. Thank you, Eliza Tibbets!
When growing oranges at home remember that they enjoy hot summers with cool winters in between for maximum sugar production. The best way to plant navel oranges is by purchasing a small tree from a well-cultivated rootstock at your local nursery that is already producing fruit. This is because these trees are a bit finicky, their fruit can appear after seven years of growth or not at all. Therefor purchasing a tree for your yard that has proven to fruit is ideal, if a bit more expensive. Also keep in mind that you should hand pick any weeds from the immediate area to help the navel orange acclimate to the surrounding soil. The tree's roots are naturally shallow so any mechanical weeding can easily damage and destroy root growth; this damage can stunt limb growth and even prevent fruit generation.
A navel orange tree can grow 30 feet tall and live for well over 100 years (its exact life span isn’t known yet because the variety is relatively young and, for instance, one of Eliza Tibbets’ original navel orange trees is still growing and producing fruit today). We do know that there is an orange tree in Europe called “Constable” that is 500 years old.
The majority of people peel an orange to get at the juicy fruit on the inside. However, even though the peel of an orange lacks the sweet juiciness of the actual orange, it is edible and nutritious. The peel is primarily eaten in environments with limited resources and that require minimal waste to be generated, like on submarines. The peel is also a source of nutritional value, particularly containing vitamin C and fiber. Word to the wise: if you’re planning to eat the peel of an orange, stick to the organically grown or processed oranges that haven’t been treated with chemical pesticides and herbicides.
If you choose not to eat the peel of an orange, there are a variety of other ways to use it including repelling the annoying slug and garden pests, producing orange oil for the purpose of adding flavor to food and drinks and adding fragrance to perfumes and aromatherapy.