If you have ever enjoyed the delicious sweetness of California navel oranges, you might be surprised to discover that you have California pioneer Eliza Lovell Tibbets and USDA’s first botanist and landscape designer William Saunders to thank.

William Saunders, horticulturist and landscape gardener, was appointed Superintendent of the Experimental Propagation Gardens of the newly created Department of Agriculture in 1862.  As the nation’s chief experimental horticulturalist, Saunders developed hundreds of plants, trees and shrubs and was responsible for the introduction of many fruits and vegetables to American agriculture.  Eliza Tibbets was a horticulturalist, pioneer California farmer, spiritualist, abolitionist, universal suffragist, trendsetter, and utopian–community builder committed to creating a better world.

In 1873, Tibbets moved from Washington, D.C. to join her husband in Riverside, a newly formed colony along the Santa Anna River in California.  Before leaving, she contacted Saunders at USDA for suggestions for a crop that would do well in the arid Mediterranean climate there.  Tibbets wanted to help Riverside’s founders and early settlers, her husband among them, who were anxious to find a crop that would grow well in the dry and dusty environment to ensure the town’s survival. Various crops had been tried, with only moderate success, and Riverside farmers were becoming increasingly desperate.

Tibbets convinced Saunders to let her test a new citrus plant that he had recently acquired from the Bahia region on the Atlantic coast north of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.  This Bahia naval orange was the result of a spontaneous mutation in a single parent tree in that region, and Saunders was anxious to determine if the plant could be grown successfully in the U.S.

Saunders sent two of the plants to Tibbets in Riverside.  The trees underwent a strenuous journey, being shipped by rail from the East Coast through San Francisco to Gilroy and then by stagecoach for three days to Los Angeles.  Tibbets brought them the remaining 65 miles to Riverside in a buckboard wagon and planted them in her garden.  The plants were stressed and very dry after their long trip, but Tibbets managed to nurse them back to health.

Unconfirmed stories say that Tibbets nurtured the plants with her recycled dish water because irrigation was not yet well developed in the area and water for household purposes and watering trees and vines had to be carted in barrels from the river. Whatever the truth of these anecdotes, there is no doubt that the trees survived and thrived because of the care given by Tibbets.