California’s Oldest Orange Approved for Production

Josh McGillCalifornia Corner, Varieties

The 1,000th tree okayed for growing by California’s Citrus Clonal Protection Program happens to be California’s oldest orange variety in the state. Dubbed the Mother Orange Tree, Bidwell’s Bar is a sweet Mediterranean orange brought to California from Mazatlán, Mexico, and planted in 1856. It was first planted near the Bidwell Bar Bridge near Oroville.

California’s Oldest Orange
Georgios Vidalakis, director of the Citrus Clonal Protection Program, poses with the Bidwell’s Bar orange tree. (Photo by Stan Lim, UCR)

The tree’s survival skills are some of the reasons Tom Delfino, former California Citrus Nursery Society director, recommended it for the protection program. “Apparently this variety is very rugged,” Delfino said. “Not only has it survived a lot of cold Northern California winters, but the tree has been dug up and replanted twice — once to protect it from impending flood, and again to make way for the Oroville Dam.”

By suggesting Bidwell’s Bar for approval, Delfino was hoping the protection program would clear it so he could buy its budwood. On the occasions he has visited the original tree, Delfino said the fruit in reaching distance was always gone. “I think it must be tasty because locals grab it for themselves,” he said. “Makes me even more eager to grow and eat my own.”

Delfino also hopes that this variety will catch on with commercial growers. “My thought is our citrus industry is concentrated in the southeastern San Joaquin Valley and is subject to a number of pests that like the warm climate there,” Delfino said. “Though this has seeds, which may be a deterrent, it can be grown in colder areas that discourage some of those insects.”

California’s oldest orange tree arrived in California nearly two decades before the better-known Washington Navel orange grown by Eliza Tibbets in Riverside. “Bidwell’s Bar is an example of what was grown in California before the Washington Navel came to dominate,” said Tracy Kahn, curator of the Givaudan Citrus Variety Collection at University of California, Riverside (UCR). 

Kahn says it’s important to preserve the genetic material from a tree with such significance to California. “Some people were worried it was going to die, but now we have an officially cleared source of this historic tree, and it is protected for future generations,” Kahn said. 

The Citrus Clonal Protection Program, housed at UC Riverside, is the first of its kind in the world. It began in the 1950s, and its scientists spend up to three years testing and clearing citrus trees of disease so they can be released to commercial and private growers. By law, every citrus tree newly propagated in California can be traced back to one mother tree created at UCR through the protection program.

Source: University of California, Riverside

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