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Navel oranges were the first California citrus trees to be propagated exclusively by budding (inserting buds from the desired type of tree into slits on rootstocks of other types of citrus trees grown from seed). Since it is very unusual to find a seed in a navel orange, there was no alternative. One of the two parent navel oranges trees from the yard of Luther and Eliza Tibetts, the eccentric Riverside couple who started the navel orange industry, has been replanted on Magnolia Avenue in Riverside, protected in a tiny park by a stout fence, where it can be still be seen. The citrus trees in pioneer California groves were seedlings, in which the entire tree is grown from a planted seed. These trees tended to grow far taller than the budded navels and valencias found in later groves. A few of these old trees can still be seen in some locations. One grove that I explored in Redlands had two seedling orange trees, reportedly planted in the 1870's, which towered over the hundreds of budded orange trees making up the remainder of the orchard. I was told by an old timer whose long-time business partner once owned the grove that the seed for the seedling trees had come from oranges grown in Tahiti. Most of the trees in the grove ranged from 15 to 20 feet in height but the seedlings appeared to be well over thirty feet tall. A man who bossed picking crews in the 1930's told me that his crew had once balked at picking from a tall seedling grove because many of the men feared the height they had to stand on, while picking from the top branches. The foreman had to begin picking from the top of one of the trees before the rest of the men were shamed into beginning their work.

The Tahitian seedling oranges hung in thick grape-like clusters and their flavor had a delectable tang. I tried other types of seedling oranges from old trees that had been left here and there as a solitary remnant of a vanished grove in the backyard of some subdivision homes. I found that quite a few of these oranges were poor for eating---very sweet but also very insipid and loaded with seeds. Seedling orange trees frequently had wicked thorns, often as long as 2 inches, and worst of all, in most cases many more years would pass before they would set a significant crop than is the case for budded trees. A grower could plant a grove of little navel orange trees and expect to get his first substantial crop in five or six years, whereas seedling orange trees often took anywhere from twelve to twenty years to set a worthwhile crop.

To see the oldest seedling orange tree left in California, one must travel to Northern California. There you can view the Mother Orange Tree, which was planted in 1856 along the banks of the Feather River, near Oroville, California. When the Oroville Dam was planned as part of the California state water project, it became clear that the tree would soon be under 600 feet of water, so it was moved to a safe, new location.

In Southern California, with the exception of the parent navel orange tree, the most extraordinary, old citrus trees have all disappeared. Dr. Willard Bitters, a citrus expert at the University of California at Riverside, recalled a grove of enormous seedling orange trees---the biggest orange trees that Bitters ever saw---that was pulled out in San Bernardino County about 40 years ago. The first set of branches extending from the trunks were eight or nine feet above the ground, in contrast to about three feet above ground in a normal orange tree. Not even one of the enormous trunks was saved as evidence that a grove of such outsized orange trees once existed.

The biggest and oldest orange tree in Southern California for many years was a seedling that had been planted by Lewis Cram in 1857. Young Lewis, his parents, and his brothers and sisters suffered through a terrible ordeal to reach California by wagon train where he would earn a place in history by planting the first orange trees in what would become the fabulous citrus region of East Highland, California. Indians killed a member of the immigrant party with their arrows, and then Lewis' mother died of typhoid fever. Later, the Indians staged a really big raid and drove off most of the horses and oxen. The wagon train was sixty miles from Yuma and the immigrants had to harness up their milk cows and riding horses to pull the wagons. They were so short of animals that the men had to turns in the harness of one wagon and pull it all the way to Yuma. The rest of the people had to walk clear to Yuma to save wear on the animals pulling the wagons. After reaching Yuma some of the exhausted travelers remained there, but the Crams bought horses and mules and headed off across the blazing desert, nearly dying of thirst before reaching San Diego safely in 1851.

The Crams moved to the San Bernardino area, and prospered by making furniture with a lathe that they had brought to California in their wagon. Lewis Cram, who tried growing oranges and other types of fruit trees, and another citrus experimenter named Frederick Van Leuven, are credited with being the first to show that the inland valleys, far to the east of Los Angeles, were outstanding places to grow oranges. Lewis Cram and his descendents became very successful orange growers in East Highland, and Lewis Crams' old seedling tree remained a landmark of his pioneering. Lewis Cram died in 1915, but the old seedling kept producing huge crops. In 1926, its height was 33 feet five inches, circumference at ground level was fifty-nine and a half inches, and the spread of its branches was 30 feet. In its most productive years, it sometimes produced a crop of over a ton of oranges. The tree would have made a wonderful memorial to the past of East Highland, now that the area is filled with houses, but it was bulldozed in the 1960's by a developer who apparently had no idea of its significance.

Roger Birdsall remembered a huge grapefruit tree in Rialto called "Morgan's Number One." This was the largest citrus tree in Rialto. It was named after Al Morgan, who owned the grove with the gigantic grapefruit tree. Close by was another grapefruit tree in the grove that was only slightly smaller. When it came time to fumigate the orchard with cyanide gas, the fumigating company hired to do the job found that the two grapefruit trees were far too large to cover with the biggest fumigating tents that they had. The fumigating company’s largest tents were draped on the sides of the tree, and then Birdsall climbed to the top of the tree, pulled a small tent over the top. and clipped it to the large tents on the sides of the tree.

Many astounding eucalyptus windbreak trees also fell to the developers. Roger Birdsall recalled the biggest eucalyptus tree in the valley, which grew across the street from his parents' house in Ontario. He estimated that the trunk was about 18 feet thick in the east-west direction and 15 feet thick in the north- south direction. The tree was well over one hundred feet tall. In the days of primitive navigation aids, pilots heading for Los Angeles International Airport used the tree as a landmark. Once, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District planned to remove the tree to install an aqueduct, and Roger's dad battled furiously to save it. He succeeded, but later, after the land was sold, developers finally pushed the monster eucalyptus over.

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This page was updated: Thursday, 16-Dec-2004 22:50:58 MST

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