Oranges, the Apples of China

//Written By Francisca Gomez //

As I mentioned in the introduction, the idea for this column was conceived during a conversation about the origin of oranges. Where do they come from? How was it possible that we knew so little about such a common fruit? Some months later, in an introductory German course, I picked up an intriguing piece of information about the origin of oranges. The German word for orange is “Apfelsine” – apple of China.

There are three main types of oranges: sweet, loose-skinned, and bitter. Sweet oranges are grown for eating and for their juice; the Navel, Valencia and Blood oranges belong to this group. Loose-skinned oranges, such as Mandarin oranges, are named after the distinct property of their skins, which can be easily removed. Their flavor ranges from sweet to tart-sweet. Bitter oranges are not to be consumed raw, as they are so sour. They are used instead for cooking sauces and marmalades, as well as for essential oils which are used to flavor foods and drinks, including liqueurs like Curacao, Grand Marnier and Cointreau. In earlier times, when first discovered, they were used for medicinal purposes. Seville and Bergamot oranges are two examples of this group.


Oranges are an ancient crop, most probably native to the Asian tropics, specifically the area from Southern China to Indonesia. From here, they spread to India, and then to the rest of the world. We have no knowledge of them growing in the wild since these ancient times. An overview of the linguistics of the word orange is a fun way of exploring the orange’s journey through history…

The word orange comes from the Tamil word for fragrant, naru; bitter oranges were called narandam and sweet oranges, nagarukam. In Sanskrit, oranges were called naranga, which was then adopted by the Persians as nārensh. It was this word that Arab merchants borrowed, adapting it to naranj for the tree and naranjah for the fruit, when they started cultivating oranges in the Middle East around the 9th century. In the 12th century, the fruit arrived to Sicily via North Africa; locals named it arangia. By the 14th century, the bitter variety used for medicinal purposes had been introduced to France and Britain, where it was known as pomme d’orenge. In the 15th century, sweet oranges more suitable for consumption arrived and started to become known simply as orange in English. The pomme (apple) component was retained in the German word Apfelsine, as was the China component in Spanish: naranja de China. Oranges are still known by this name is some areas of the Caribbean and Central America; sometimes only the word for “China” is used.

Orange Stem

There are two more interesting linguistics-related facts about oranges: the fruit named the color but not the city. The first instance of the word “orange” being used as a color in English was not until the 1500s – before that, the color was referred to as “yellow-red.” The French City of Orange was named after Arausio, a Celtic god, not the succulent fruit.

Once the sweet orange had arrived in Europe, introduced by the Moors, along with Portuguese and Italian merchants, it became popular among the wealthy, who cultivated it in private orchards called “orangeries.” Christopher Columbus introduced it in the Caribbean and in the mid-16th century, the sweet orange arrived in Florida with the Spanish explorers. In the 18th century it was introduced to California by the Spanish missionaries.

Prior to the 20th century, oranges were consumed as a dessert fruit, but they were expensive and reserved for special holidays by many. It was only after the 1920s that orange juice became popular and throughout the 20th century numerous technologies were invented to facilitate the process of obtaining the juice concentrate from oranges.

Blood Orange Salad

Today, Brazil is the biggest producer of oranges in the world, growing a third of the worldwide supply. It is followed closely by the United States. In the USA, the main product made from oranges in frozen concentrated juice, using up about 40% of the oranges produced (85% in Brazil). Other areas of production include other subtropical and tropical lands: Americas, India, Japan, Spain, Italy, Egypt, South Africa, and Australia. The orange tree is the most popular fruit tree for cultivation.

Orange trees live for a long time and usually produce large quantities of oranges for fifty to eighty years. Some trees whose age is estimated at more than a hundred years continue to produce oranges. The ripeness of the orange cannot be determined by its color, since the color depends on the climate. If it is cooler, the levels of chlorophyll fall, allowing the fruit to turn orange, but if it stays hot, the fruit stays green. Since the fruit can remain in the tree until the next season after ripening, fluctuations in the weather will be reflected in the color of the orange changing from green to orange, sometimes more than once. The evergreen tree can produce flowers, fruit, and foliage all together, and due to this fact, the tree and the fruit have been associated with fertility and used in wedding ceremonies since ancient times.

Orange Tree

The orange is my favorite fruit and I hope that while reading this you have developed as strong a craving for an orange as I have. There is nothing like a refreshing, vitamin C-loaded glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. The mess, stickiness, and noisiness of eating a succulent, aromatic orange, split in half, is always worth it.




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