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DECEMBER MEETING REPORT: History of Citrus in California with John Clements

By Lynn Langley.

John Clements of the San Diego Botanic Garden.

The latest Zoom monthly meeting took everyone on a magical history tour of citrus in Southern California. John Clements, San Diego Botanical Garden horticulturist and avid historian, took us back to 1769 and the beginning of agriculture in Southern California with the arrival of Junipero Serra and the mission system. Interestingly enough, there was no mention of citrus in the records of the earliest missions. Figs, olives, and pomegranates figured prominently. It was not until the construction of Mission San Gabriel in 1771 that citrus is first mentioned. Considered the Queen of Mission System agriculture, olives, citrus and grapes were grown. This mission supplied many of the original grapevines in California and were called Mission Vines. The mission system existed until around 1833, when it died.

At this time, California was part of Mexico. Mexican Californios had no real interest in citrus and agriculture. Enjoying a cowboy lifestyle, their passion was cattle, and these cattle were the basis of the economy. Cattle were not primarily used for beef but for their hides. Hides were money, the meat was considered a waste product.

In 1831, an expedition from New Mexico led by William Wolfskill arrived in what is now Los Angeles, bringing with him a tremendous interest in agriculture. One of his fellow expedition members, George Yount, decided that the area was too crowded and headed north, eventually settling in the Napa Valley on the Caymus Rancho. Considered the father of the wine industry in Napa, he founded Yountville and was the largest land owner in the area.

Down in the Los Angeles area, William Wolfskill was creating his reputation as the father of California Agriculture. At this time, Olivera Street was the main area of Los Angeles. He grew bananas, guavas, apricots, apples, pineapples and wine grapes on 48 acres in downtown L.A. He expanded the wine industry and became the largest vintner in California. In the late 1830’s Wolfskill began planting oranges. He benefitted from the gold rush because his oranges helped offset scurvy in the miners. In 1849 oranges were selling for $1/orange. Wolfskill used his profits to invest in more land. By 1864 Wolfskill had acquired Irvine Ranch and was growing Valencia oranges and actively breeding oranges. The market for citrus from California was limited until the completion of the intercontinental railroad in 1869. This transformed the citrus industry in California. Eastern markets were now open to California citrus. It helped change the view of California and oranges were used as a tourism ploy.

In 1870, Eliza Tibbits, an early suffragette, spiritualist and pioneer settled in Riverside. She discovered that the Valencia orange, while thriving on the coast, did not fare well in the hotter and drier climate in Riverside. She obtained cuttings from 4 navel orange trees from the USDA (having come from Brazil) and found that they loved the Riverside area. Interest in navel oranges exploded, and Eliza had to protect her trees by wrapping them in barbed wire to prevent people from stealing budwood. They are called Washington Navel oranges because they came from the USDA in Washington, DC. There was an “orange” rush with people moving to California to grow oranges. Orange cultivation became a plaything of the very wealthy, with citrus groves becoming a winter playground for East Coast money. Citrus growing at this level ended around 1955, with the construction of Disneyland being one of the death knells for the industry.

San Diego never really became an orange growing area – lemons were the primary citrus crops. The Great Freeze of 1913 wiped out the lemon industry in San Diego.

At this point in his presentation, John turned to current citrus growing. It is important to feed, mulch and water. Mulch should be 4-6 inches deep. Roots are rather shallow so it is necessary to not let them dry out. Since citrus trees are heavy feeders it is important to fertilize 4 times a year. John recommended using a fertilizer like Milorganite (6-4-0). The fertilizer schedule he follows is a double dose of fertilizer in April, about 2 cups per inch of trunk girth. Follow that with single doses of fertilizer in June, August and late October. Stop fertilizing after the October feeding. 60-70% of the growth on citrus trees for the year occurs in mid-January, but it is too late to fertilize then. When asked about growing citrus in pots he advised against using black plastic pots as they allow the soil to get too hot. Terra cotta pots are okay to use.

See the meeting presentation on the SDHS YouTube channel here:


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