At farmer’s markets around the Bay Area and in most of the front yards about town, oranges are the only fruits I see in abundance in the waning weeks of spring. And with the yearly arrival of this citrus blitz returns a rancid thought about my landscaper, Enrique. He’s a good man—if you call a man good who hasn’t kept up a promise, or two, or three.
“Kalpaaana, I was just thinkin’, you know,” he said to me one day some four years ago, smiling, pocketing my fat check for his landscaping gig, flashing his gold teeth in the summer sun and flinging his mud-encrusted fingers in the direction of my blossoming yard. “You been so good to me, I’m gonna throw in the epoxy paintin’ of your backyard wall.” He sucked in his breath and puffed up his chest. “For free.”
That September Enrique bought me a navel orange plant from a nursery in Sunol. For a long time, I’d dreamed of growing oranges in my backyard. Centuries ago, I couldn’t have imagined growing one in my home unless I were blue-blooded. Oranges were cultivated inside an orangerie—a hothouse in the grounds of European palaces and residences of noblemen. Citrus trees survived through harsh frosts by taking cover inside such hothouses.
The fruit entered Europe through the Mediterranean. It’s theorized that after the continental drift, the ancestor of the citrus traveled to the Indian subcontinent from the Malay Archipelago. Charaka Samhita, an early Sanskrit text on Ayurveda that was compiled 2,000 years ago, mentions the orange as “naranga.” This eventually became the Persian “naranj.” A story describes how the fruit reached Italy from India; a ship ferried the fruit from the Malabar Coast to the western shore of the Red Sea in just seventy days and then, in a few weeks, it trekked by camel into Europe. By the end of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, the Italian peninsula was lined with orange orchards. Then, in the 15th century, Columbus carried seeds of citrus plants into the New World as part of the Columbian Exchange—the exchange of animals, plants, culture, ideas and human populations between the American and the Afro-Eurasian hemispheres. Four hundred years later, the United States would become a major producer of oranges in the world; in 2013, it produced some eight million metric tons, the second highest after Brazil.
As for the specific variety that I wished to plant in my home—the navel orange with its umbilical knob—I have to thank one Mrs. Eliza Tibbets, a horticulturist in Southern California, who was keen to plant two specimens in her home in Riverside. In 1873 she wrote to the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., after learning that it had received twelve trees from Bahia, Brazil. By nurturing the Washington navel orange trees that were sent to her, Tibbets revolutionized an entire citrus industry in California and in the United States. Thanks to Eliza, I could finally plant one now in my backyard one hundred and fifty years later.
That first year after Enrique settled the plant into the soil, my orange tree bore flowers. Orange blossoms lure, like jasmine. I discovered that an orange was called “naranga” in India also because of the intoxicating fragrance of the flowers. The first syllable “nar,” is a prefix, in Tamil, that alludes to smell. The fragrance of the orange flowers in my backyard was so compelling I could have lounged in the arbor all day. Unfortunately the flowers didn’t phase into fruit that year. They simply vanished. Enrique blamed the squirrels.
The next year the plant bore a fair number of leaves, but no flowers. Enrique then reassured me saying, “The plant is still good but I tell you what, may be it wants to be somewhere else.” He suggested a transplant. “Tell you what, Kalpaana, let’s move it to the front—out of that spot in your backyard.” He carried it to the front and planted it in full sun, a few feet away from my hibiscus plant. When a third spring rolled around, the leaves started curling inward whenever I stared at them. It became obvious that the plant wanted to be somewhere else—just not in my home. My orange was proving to be a real lemon.
The darn plant, or its forebear, had swum through mighty oceans, scaled mountains, crossed deserts in caravans and traveled to inclement climes and grown like a weed wherever it went. And here I was, an eager homeowner in California, ready with rich, tilled soil that was fertilized, fecund and lusting to grow what was now considered a common, ordinary fruit. I felt conned.
I suppose it’s that ordinariness of the orange that made me covet it. In my eyes, the orange rind of the citrus family—kumquat, clementine, mandarin, grapefruit—offered a guarantee of the elemental, of everything that was right with the world. The orange reminded me of everything clean and honest, of the goodness of things, of the sweetness of children. I couldn’t recall the tanginess of an orange without remembering the soccer games and violin recitals of my children’s adolescence. Sucking on a wedge of an orange squirted the taste of a vacation onto my tongue, of long drives past orange groves on our trip through the Greek islands.
We haven’t been successful with growing the orange in our home but our kumquat tree, the diminutive cousin of the orange, is fertile beyond my wildest imagination. I’ve never fussed over it. Yet it preens outside my son’s window, a lush green bush pregnant with orange pendants.
On my daily walks, I realize that I’ve yet to pick on Enrique. When he does come to fix that timer problem with my sprinkler, I’ll have to remind him, yet again, to paint that wall. And then I’ll show him the orange tree he transplanted whose leaves are now so jaundiced that I’m worried it’s a closet-Gingko. “Enrique, my man, tell you what,” I’ll say, when he visits. “First, I think you need to know your orange. Better than you do your own navel.”