Sweet orange travelled the globe from origin in China

Beautiful Botanicals by Joanne Howdle

Sweet orange.

Mention ‘orange’ and you instantly conjure up a host of associations – brilliant colours and a juicy explosion of tangy, tart, sweet flavours. But what exactly is an orange?

It is the fruit of various citrus species in the family Rutaceae and primarily refers to Citrus x sinensis – common name sweet orange. The sweet orange is a hybrid of mandarin (Citrus reticulata) and pomelo (Citrus maxima).

Sweet oranges grow on spiny, evergreen trees, which can reach up to four metres in height. Sweet orange trees have glossy, ovate leaves which can grow to 10 centimetres long.

From late spring to summer, the trees bear small fragrant white flowers – known as orange blossom. One of the oldest fruit trees to be domesticated, orange trees have the unusual trait of simultaneously displaying both mature fruit and orange blossom.

The fruit is a modified berry (hesperidium) with a tough, leathery rind around a segmented interior (carpels) which contain juice-laden vesicles. The pigmented outer layer of rind also known as peel (flavedo) contains volatile essential oils.

Thought to have originated in southern China, the botanical slowly made its way across continents and oceans to Europe and the Americas. The evolution of the word ‘orange’ follows the botanical’s journey and can be traced from the Sanskrit ‘naranga’, the Persian ‘narang’, the Arabic ‘naranj’, to the European ‘auranja’, ‘arangia’, and ‘orenge’.

The first orange to spread beyond China was the bitter orange (Citrus x aurantium). It made an initial brief appearance in Europe around the 1st century AD with the spread of the Roman Empire to Central Asia. However, most Roman orangeries were destroyed with the fall of the Roman Empire, except for some orangeries located in Sicily and North Africa.

The sweet orange did not arrive in Europe until the 15th century. On his voyage around the Cape of Good Hope in 1498, Portuguese explorer and navigator Vasco da Gama (circa 1460-1524), discovered the sweet orange in East Africa on the Arab trade routes.

The varieties da Gama brought back to Portugal were such a success in Europe that in the mid-17th century the sweet orange became known as the ‘Portugal orange’. The Italian explorer and navigator Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) took the sweet orange with him to the Americas on his second voyage in 1493, planting the first tree in Haiti.

The Spaniards and Portuguese spread the botanical through Central and South America, where the sweet orange naturalised.

Sweet oranges have a long history of association with humankind from the inclusion of the blossom in wedding bouquets, to the use of the essential oils found in the rind or peel of the botanical in the production of perfumes, scented oils, soaps, insect repellents, and furniture polish.

The Vitamin C found in sweet orange has long been a cure for scurvy and the botanical is often juiced to create orange juice, a popular breakfast drink which is available in filtered and unfiltered varieties.

Sweet orange peel contains essential oils that can be extracted to make orange essence. This essence is used to flavour a variety of sweets and desserts. The petals are also used to create orange blossom water, a citrus variation of rosewater.

Beehives located near orange groves produce a particularly aromatic type of honey that is often sold as orange blossom honey.

In gin production, sweet orange peel is used either fresh or dried, to add a lightly sweet citrus note, and a juicy mellowness to the spirit. The petals – orange blossom – are sometimes used in gin manufacture to add a floral note to the spirit.

  • Joanne Howdle is interpretation and engagement manager at the multi-award-winning Dunnet Bay Distillers Ltd.
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