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.

First crop bonanza

The first crop produced caused a lot of excitement among the settlers.  The fruit was a particularly sweet, large, easy-peeling, hardy and prolific orange that had no seeds.  It was considered superior in quality, texture, size and other characteristics. Tibbets sent some samples to Saunders, who replied back saying “Without any doubt the Bahia is the best orange I have ever tasted.”

The first local taste test was held at a housewarming hosted by Tibbets, where the newly ripened fruit was passed around.  From then on, the demand for buds was so great from Tibbet’s trees that they were used exclusively for propagation.  Soon Tibbet’s navel oranges were being planted throughout the area, creating a booming new industry.

Although officially called the Bahia, the fruit was soon popularly known as the Riverside navel or, more commonly, the Washington navel.  Its popularity and success eventually made Riverside a rich citrus center.  By 1900 the navel orange was the most extensively grown crop in California, bringing in millions of dollars annually.  New towns, such as Redlands, Corona, Tustin, Pomona, Highlands, Ontario, and Azuza, sprang up to service the rapidly growing orange industry.

In the 1880s, USDA and University of California scientists devoted their expertise and resources to improving citrus growing.  They also established farmer’s institutes to spread their expertise and encouraged experimentation by growers themselves.  A Citrus Experiment Station was established in 1907 to support the needs of the industry, becoming a world center for research and the basis for UC Riverside.

Introduction of the Bahia navel orange proved to be the most successful experiment of Saunders’s tenure.  In a personal journal entry about the orange from 1898 Saunders remarked, “It has proved to be perhaps the most valuable introduction ever made by the Department of Agriculture in the way of fruits.”