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How Orange County got its name… and lost its oranges

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Citrus packing companies used intricate labels like this one to

A hundred years ago, California citrus was described as a “second gold rush.” It helped shape the state’s prosperity and identity. Millions of orange trees once grew in Orange County — but only a few remain.

When the name Orange County was first proposed, there weren’t very many oranges. Most locals were growing grapes and raising hogs, but in an effort to better promote the area, the county looked to oranges. The name became official in 1889. Migrants poured in, and many planted small citrus groves. Around 1900, oranges became the county’s main crop. Millions of orange trees were planted.

But as the popularity rose, land got expensive and trees had to go to make room for tract houses and the oranges began to disappear.

Independent Producer Daniel Gross visited some of the small remaining privately owned orchards to get a sense of where our oranges used to come from (and how sweet they still taste).

Listen:

Citrus packing companies used intricate labels like this one to distinguish their products. They were placed on sealed crates of oranges, grapefruit, and lemons, which were purchased by wholesale buyers across the country. (Credit: Tustin Area Historical Society)
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Orange trees take about 10 years to mature. Above, young citrus trees grow on a shallow hillside in Orange County. (Credit: Tustin Area Historical Society)
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Well-maintained orange trees can produce fruit for as long as 50 years. In Tustin, CA, small family orchards were bordered by streets and farm houses. (Credit: Tustin Area Historical Society)
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Unlike row crops like lima beans or strawberries, citrus trees grow well on slopes and hillsides. Many early orchards were planted near foothills and mountains, because that allowed easy access to runoff from snow. (Credit: Tustin Area Historical Society)
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Nick Spain stands beside the Old Sexlinger Orchard, the last intact citrus plot in Orange County. A descendant of Orange County lima bean farmers, Spain has fought since 2011 to set up a community center on the site. Its current owners plan to build houses there. (Credit: Daniel A. Gross)
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Bob Lynn ran his family’s 200-acre orange orchard until the 1990s, when climbing water prices made it too costly to continue. Today, Lynn leads tours at the California Citrus State Historical Park in Riverside. (Credit: Daniel A. Gross)
At Blue Banner Company in Riverside, a worker sorts fresh grapefruit into cardboard crates. The crates are sent by conveyor belt to cold storage, where they are packaged and shipped to Japan and Korea. They'll reach consumers in cities like Tokyo and Seoul in about two weeks. (Credit: Daniel A. Gross)
At Blue Banner Company in Riverside, a worker sorts fresh grapefruit into cardboard crates. The crates are sent by conveyor belt to cold storage, where they are packaged and shipped to Japan and Korea. They’ll reach consumers in cities like Tokyo and Seoul in about two weeks. (Credit: Daniel A. Gross)