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Salt and Shadow

Stories of food, ritual and what we grow. 

Two of the evergreens all over this region are manzanitas and foothills pines. I admire the manzanitas with their twisting branches and peeling red bark, and bluish green leathery leaves. They offer a pleasant surprise in the middle of winter with pink and white sweet smelling blooms, and hummingbirds can feed on the nectar instead of flying south. The berries and flowers are edible and the leaves can relieve poison oak rash if boiled into a decoction and poured into a bath.

The foothills pines, also known as gray pines or ghost pines have huge pine cones, and their nuts provide a major food source to the Native Americans in this region. Pine needles can be used to make tea, and are high in vitamins C and A.

Through commercial trade routes the sweet orange reached Europe in the 12 and 13th centuries. Aristocrats in France built special greenhouses called orangeries in order to grow them in the colder climate. In 1475, the first written distinction between the sour orange and sweet orange was recorded. Christopher Columbus took oranges to the New World in “overseas survival kits” to combat scurvy. The seeds were planted in Haiti in 1493 and flourished in the climate. Spanish settlers then took seeds to Florida where the fruit thrived as well.It’s estimated that over 2 million European sailors between the 16th and 19th centuries died of scurvy, carrying oranges on board meant that Spanish and Portuguese sailors could travel farther, and longer.

Spanish missionaries crossed America to Arizona and California, planting oranges when they arrived in the 18th century. The first orange grove was planted at the San Gabriel mission in 1804 in California. When the 1849 gold rush hit California, there was a big demand for oranges, it was well known that citrus prevented scurvy by this time. William Wolfskill planted the first commercial orange orchard near present day Los Angeles, and the business flourished due to the demand from the miners arriving. Wolfskill grew hundreds of orange and lemon seedlings, which he secured from the San Gabriel Mission.

The navel orange, a sweet, seedless mutation from Brazil was acquired by the US Dept of Agriculture and sent a few starter trees to Eliza Tibbets to see if they would grow in Riverside, California in 1873. The navel orange was remarkably popular; large, sweet golden globes outshined other varieties, and it became the cornerstone to the commercial citrus industry in California. Because the navel orange has no way to reproduce naturally, growers must graft bud sports to another tree’s trunk or roots, a process that creates a clone of the original. Nearly all the navel orange trees grown in California are descendants of Tibets’ original tree. From the beginning of the 1900s, citrus became one of California’s largest industries; second only to oil. The railroad made it possible for the fruit to be sold thousands of miles away to the big eastern markets ofNew Orleans, Chicago and New York.

It’s midwinter and there aren’t a lot of fruits in season in the Northern hemisphere, some bulbs are just beginning to peek out and a few wildflowers are starting to appear in the sun. But oranges can be found everywhere, at farmer’s markets and being sold roadside out of crates. If you’re American you probably associate oranges with California or Florida, but how did they get here?

All citrus fruits originated in the Southeast Himalayan foothills, in a region including the eastern area of India, northern Myanmar and western China. The oldest fossil resembling current major citrus groups was found in Yunnan China, and provides evidence of a common citrus ancestor *8 million years ago*. The first written evidence of the fruit appeared in China in 314.

The Moors spread the sour orange from the borders of China and India across Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa and parts of Europe after the Islamic Conquest in the 8th century. The sour orange was used by herbalists to make medicinal syrup as it was not palatable. Oil extracted from the flowers, seeds, leaves and rind lends the typical orange-like flavor. Neroli oil is derived from the flower of sour orange and is used for everything from perfume to medicine, and the scent is often cited in aromatherapy to reduce cortisol levels in the brain. Sour orange was used as condiment for salted meat and fish, and eventually preserved with sugar as a marmalade.

Moors conquered the southern part of Spain by 711 and named it Al-Andalus. Beautiful mosques were erected, such as Mesquita in Cordoba where the famous Patio de Los Naranjos, a courtyard of oranges and cypress trees, is located. The Seville orange, that we know today was brought to Spain at the end of the first millennium, and is now the standard sour orange. To this day, Seville is surrounded by orange farms and the sour orange trees outnumber every other species of tree in the city.

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