Winter in the North State brings several seasonal luxuries, among them, citrus. There’s nothing quite like a prolonged and hard cold snap for a gardener’s true colors and true priorities to show. In the last week of severe (for us) cold on the Valley Floor, where temperatures in my garden hit 19 one early morning and were below 25 at least three nights in a row, it’s the citrus that people are willing to go to great lengths to protect and save. Gardeners who are often fairly hands off in the home garden otherwise, will create elaborate protective lighting schemes and frost cloth (or bedsheet) tents from which their beloved mandarins, Meyer lemons, kafir limes, sweet oranges, grapefruit and kumquats glow warmly through the long cold nights. Winter beacons of fertility and prosperity.
Which brings us to our Weekend Winter’s Tale – that of the so-called Mother Orange and the recorded beginnings of citrus cultivation in Northern California. A “mother” plant is one from which cuttings, grafts and/or seeds are taken for the purposes of propagating in order to continue the desirable attributes of that plant.
Photo: Citrus experts from Southern California marvel over the Mother Orange during a visit in 1953. The commemorative monument with plaque to the left of the tree briefly notes the history and significance of the tree. COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA COOPERATIVE EXTENSION OFFICE
The Mother Orange has a long and storied history. The tree is a Mediterranean sweet orange Citrus × sinensis cultivar, the rootstock for which was brought from Mazatlán, Mexico on a shipping vessel in the mid-1850s. As a two-year-old slip, she was purchased at market on the streets of Sacramento by Judge Joseph Lewis in 1856. He took this then-novelty to Northern California and planted the seedling near the toll bridge he helped to fund the building of at Bidwell’s Bar, in Butte County. Today, this stately old woman of a tree is the oldest living orange tree in California.
Records and regional legend has it that “Early-day miners traveled from far and wide to eat her sweet oranges, gather the seeds, and plant them in yards of their homes.” At her largest, the tree grew to a height of between 30 and 60 feet and at the height of her fruit production, the tree averaged about 600 pounds of fruit in a season.
According to earlier resources, Dr. H.J. Webber, Director, Citrus Experiment Station, Riverside was quoted as saying in 1927, “From the Mother Orange’s example and largely from its offspring, a new industry was started in a new section hundreds of miles north of a known citrus region. The Mother Orange of Butte County was a true pioneer,”
The Mother Orange has lived through fire, water, ice, human pressure and twice being transplanted, once in 1862 to avoid an impending flood of the Feather River; and a second time in 1964 during the construction of Oroville Dam. The second move saw the tree relocated to where she still stands on the grounds of the California State Park Headquarters in Oroville. The tree’s survival proved that the citrus could indeed do well and prosper in Northern California. Since then many growers and gardeners have successfully grown and protected oranges and many other citrus in the North State. The North State’s Mother Orange can be seen year round on the grounds of the government building on Glenn Drive south of Meadowview Drive in Oroville. Two California Historical Landmark commemorative plaques are located near the tree.
Photo: The Mother Orange being deep-boxed for its move to its present location in 1964. A part of the Bidwell Bar Bridge can be seen in the right side of the picture. The men visible in the background under foliage appear dwarfed by the tree. Note oranges growing on the tree, which mature from February through May. The tree needed pruning from 33 feet in height to 20 feet for the move. COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA COOPERATIVE EXTENSION OFFICE
In 1998, a record cold spell damaged the Mother Orange enough that tree stopped bearing fruit for a number of years. As a result of the frost, decay fungus entered the trunk. Under threat of losing the tree and in order to ensure her preservation, propagation experts at the University of California, Riverside successfully produced four clones of the Mother Orange in 2003. Three clones were brought back to the North State for planting. According to Joe Connell, University of California Cooperative Extension farm adviser based in Oroville, “it was a wise decision to clone the 150-year-old agricultural treasure, the parent of the Northern California citrus industry.”
Most citrus is more reliably suited to zone 9 and higher. The Valley Floor – where cold air will pool – is generally a zone 8. Just a little rise off the floor, for instance along the edges of the Valley Floor in Oroville, the temperatures will stay those few important degrees warmer in the winter and citrus is hardier.
In marginal areas, planting your specimens against a south facing fence or wall can create a protective microclimate. Periods of more than couple of hours at or below 26 degrees is damaging to most citrus crops and plants. Some techniques for protecting your plants do include covering well with warming lights, tenting with frost cloth and watering well before the cold air arrives.
If your trees have been burnt by the frost, remember to NOT CUT THEM BACK UNTIL SPRING when your area is past frost and the trees should be putting on new growth. If you cut them back now, they don’t have even that dead material to protect them from more frosts this winter. So be patient with the less than lovely look and remember you are doing the right thing for your plant.
It’s nice, in a way, to know that not only are you not alone, you are in fact part of a long history of gardeners who push boundaries, who will protect their plant favorites at any cost, who enjoy listening to the tales of wise men and who gain immense satisfaction from the bright winter luxury of citrus from the garden in the cold winter months.
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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. It is made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time.