Eliza Tibbets, the Mother of Navel Oranges

By Adam Calder, Wheatsfield Produce Manager

Navel oranges are one of the most popular winter fruits we sell at Wheatsfield, and understandably so. These oranges are known the world over for their sweet taste and thick peels that are easy to remove, and allow for easy packing and shipping. They are a welcome burst of color, nutrition and flavor during the cold months of the year. How did these oranges come to be, and who is responsible for sharing them with the world?

We owe the navel orange’s prevalence to a strong and courageous woman named Eliza Tibbets (1823-1898). She and her husband Luther had briefly lived in Virginia, where they were advocates of racial equity. Because of this, the racist members of their community sent threatening letters to the Tibbets by way of the Ku Klux Klan until the Tibbets moved to Washington, DC.

It is here Eliza met William Saunders, who was then the head of the experimental gardens division of the United States Agricultural Department. A couple of years later, the Tibbets moved away from there, although Eliza would make trips back to Washington to march as a suffragist.

The Tibbets were some of the first residents of Riverside, California. The community struggled at first, and once the townsfolk completed an irrigation channel Eliza wanted a cash crop to help support her family. She contacted her friend Saunders back in D.C., and asked him if he had any suggestions.

Saunders had been busy growing oranges in D.C. and had recently acquired some unique orange tree specimens from Bahia, Brazil. These oranges were truly sterile, with no seeds, no pollen, and pistols that are so mutated they cannot receive pollen from other oranges. The “navel” of the orange is actually a second, immature fruit. Saunders grafted twelve of these Bahia orange trees on some young orange tree rootstock. When he got the letter from Eliza asking for his help, he sent her two of the trees he grafted.

Eliza planted these next to her kitchen door, and according to legend she nurtured them with dishwater. The trees thrived, and soon she was selling grafts from her trees to local nurseries. Her orange trees became known as Washington navel oranges, and their planting and popularity spread rapidly across California. These oranges caused California to transition from a wheat producing state to an orange producing one.

Navel orange trees descended from Eliza’s two trees now grow all over the world. They are genetically identical to those first two trees planted two hundred years ago. One of those two trees is still alive and can be visited, although the tree is shrouded in a protective screen to keep away pests. The next time you hold a navel orange in your hand, know you are holding onto an exceptional piece of fruit. You also hold a line that connects you to an incredible person from two hundred years ago, who’s legacy lives on to this day.