This story kicks off our “Beyond Sacramento” series, a reader-driven initiative that lets you ask questions about our region that The Bee explores and answers. Scroll to the online form at the bottom of this story to submit your question.
The question, submitted by Bee staff to get things started: Why are there so many orange trees in Sacramento?
Springtime is knocking on Sacramento’s door, accompanied by the familiar scent of citrus.
It’s an annual bounty so plentiful and so common that longtime locals may sometimes fail to notice that, once again, oranges are everywhere.
But resident Kathy Anuszczyk, for one, keeps her eye on the seasons. For more than a decade, she has been harvesting the fruits of her Sacramento neighbors, going-door-to-door to collect excess produce for delivery to regional food banks and pantries.
“Especially for elderly neighbors, they’ve raised this tree, nurtured it, they’ve eaten from it and do all the preserving, and now it’s really overwhelming and a mess with bugs and debris,” Anuszczyk said. “They know it’s going someone where it’ll do good.”
And around this time of year, it’s all citrus, she said. In past years, her harvesting teams with Soil Born Farms collected a whopping 2,000 pounds of citrus fruits during each gleaning event. That means kumquats, grapefruits, mandarins, lemons and, of course, oranges.
In recent months, efforts to harvest unwanted oranges have been halted by a quarantine over much of Sacramento because of an infestation of oriental fruit flies. And on Thursday, the California Department of Food and Agriculture placed a citrus plant quarantine for the entire county after an Asian citrus psyllid was detected in south Sacramento.
But that hasn’t stopped a variety of delicious oranges from fruiting and ripening on trees across the Sacramento region.
So – why are there so many orange trees in Sacramento?
From Gold Rush to golden fruits
Like many aspects of California’s modern history, oranges have their roots in the Gold Rush – or rather, in its aftermath.
When it dawned on late 19th-century California transplants that mining for gold would be unsustainable for many, they began looking for a different industry to enter and invest in, said Sacramento city historian Marcia Eymann.
“What they did was start to farm here in the Valley because with the flooding, it means you’ve got fertile land,” Eymann said.
These farmers started with crops such as oats and wheat, before transitioning to others to compete with the Southern California market, including tomatoes, rice, olives, apples, pears and, of course, oranges. “You can kind of see all that experimentation with crops,” Eymann said. “What we make money on is what we stick with.”
Landowners, entrepreneurs and local officials quickly worked to drum up attention for the budding industry. In January 1886, the first Northern California Citrus Fair was held at the Arcade Building, with The Sacramento Bee reporting at the time that the event was “fairly aglow with its wealth of gold and green.”
“The exposition showed that orange-growing is no experiment in Northern California; no mere matter of theory, but a grand reality,” the article said.
By the early 20th century, The Bee reported that “New celebrity for the American River district is being gained through the extensive planting of late years of oranges and other citrus fruits and olives on the high lands at the edge of the valley ... the attractive colonies of Orangevale and Fair Oaks,” in a June 30, 1902 article.
“As for the young orchards of oranges and olives at Orangevale and Fair Oaks, their strong growth, healthful appearances and generous bearing convince any visitor of their local adaptability,” the article read.
By then, between the two tracts were 1,000 acres of orange and other citrus fruits, according to the 1902 article. Within a decade, a real estate firm began buying large tracts of land in the area, including the Sylvan District. In an apparent attempt to build on Orangevale and Fair Oaks’ marketability, the firm changed the district’s name to “Citrus Heights,” advertising the area in The Bee for years as a place where citrus grew well.
“Then gradually the population boomed,” Eymann said. “With urban sprawl, what partially used to be orange groves there, now it’s a suburb.”
Today, there’s only one commercial grower of oranges in Sacramento County – Strutz Ranch in Sloughhouse.
“Overall, it’s the best crop we have had,” owner Chris Strutz told The Bee about last winter’s crop. “My trees have finally matured and are producing super good fruit.”
But you don’t have to look hard to see remnants of Sacramento’s orange roots.
Sacramento’s ‘Mediterranean climate’
In 1923, Sacramento began a tree planting program with a goal to line city street lanes with fruiting trees, said Sacramento Tree Foundation spokeswoman Stephanie Robinson.
Residents could simply request a tree from a group of 15 species at no cost, so long as they committed to caring for it, including ornamental orange trees, according to the 1998 paper “From nature to nurture: The history of Sacramento’s urban forest” by E. Gregory Mcpherson and Nina Luttinger.
“But those types of trees don’t get big enough and are messy,” Robinson said, and many have been since replaced.
Still, plenty of orange trees still dot city streets in downtown Sacramento. Most are Seville oranges, which are known for a fragrant blossom of white flowers. On the state Capitol grounds, most of the orange trees lining pathways are also Seville oranges, though there are also Valencias.
And while they are beautiful to look at, UC Cooperative Extension Sacramento County Master Gardener Bill Krycia warned against peeling into Seville oranges. “If you try to eat them they’re yucky,” because they’re particularly sour, he said.
“But bake them in butter and sugar and, oh man, they’re heaven.”
So what makes Sacramento conducive to so many varieties of oranges?
The region has the perfect Mediterranean climate to develop particularly tasty oranges, Krycia said. The intense heat of Sacramento summers helps the trees develop necessary sugars, while cooler winter temperatures lower the acidity of fruits.
“Our climate is really well-suited for any kind of citrus tree,” Robinson said. “We have mild winters and frost won’t likely significantly damage the leaves. They can handle our heat in the summer, they can handle irregular watering.”
When the orange is ready to be picked depends on the variety. The most popular types grown in Sacramento’s frontyards, according to Krycia, are Washington navel oranges (which ripen from late fall through the winter) and Valencia oranges (March or April.)
“Other types of fruit trees require significant care to make sure they keep fruiting, like pruning them a certain way” Robinson said, or using specific fertilizer or netting.
Simply put, orange trees are “easy for lazy gardeners,” Anuszczyk said with a laugh.
Are they in danger?
Any infestation or disease affecting citrus in the area would be a “huge threat to the economy,” Robinson said.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture on Thursday said an Asian citrus psyllid had been detected in the Lemon Hill neighborhood in south Sacramento, prompting a citrus plant quarantine for the entire county.
The psyllids carry a disease known as huanglongbing, also called HLB, which can kill citrus plants and for which there is no cure.
The quarantine prohibits movement of citrus nursery stock and plant parts, except for washed fruits with stems and leaves removed, out of the county.
Though more than 1,000 HLB cases have been observed in Southern California, there has never been an outbreak in Northern California, Sacramento County Agricultural Commissioner Juli Jensen said Tuesday.
Signs of the psyllid have popped up in neighboring Placer and Yolo counties, Jensen said.
“We’ve been able to keep it out, up until now,” she said.
Though the bug has been spotted, HLB has not yet been observed in any of the three counties.
HLB will lead citrus trees to decline in health, create misshapen and bitter fruit and then die, CDFA says.
“If your citrus is looking really mingy, that’s bad,” Jensen said.
HLB does not affect human health.
County pesticide staffs will set up 200 traps in the 4 square miles surrounding the initial psyllid find in Lemon Hill, Jensen said, in an effort to eradicate before an outbreak can further threaten orange trees, lemon trees and more.
The psyllid itself is a very small insect that can leave a white, waxy discharge on the plants, Jensen said.
Meanwhile, the oriental fruit fly quarantine has been in place for several months over 128 square miles encompassing parts of Sacramento and surrounding suburbs, including south Sacramento, East Sacramento, midtown and downtown, Pocket, Land Park, Rosemont, Hollywood Park, Curtis Park, Colonial Heights, Oak Park and parts of Arden Arcade.
The female oriental fruit fly lay its eggs inside a fruit, making it inedible. The oriental fruit fly, if not eradicated, could cause up to $176 million in crop losses in the state, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, or CDFA. Treatment plans are underway, and focus on baiting and killing fruit flies before they breed.
Got more questions? Orange you glad we’ve got answers?
What if I don’t have an orange tree in my backyard? Can I eat my neighbor’s fruit?
In some cases, yes. If fruit is hanging over a pedestrian’s right-of-way – generally, most sidewalks – or over your fence into your yard, it is legal to pick it, Robinson said.
“But I think it’s always best to ask,” she said. “I have 13 fruit trees, I’m overflowing with fruit trees” people can pick from. “But if they were to ask, I would send them off with a basket and more from the garden they can’t see,” she added.
Robinson also said you cannot damage the tree when picking fruit. You cannot pick fruits from trees on the Capitol grounds.
What do I do with all the extra fruit on my trees?
If you live outside the quarantine areas, you can request Soil Born Farms to have a volunteer like Anuszczyk pick the fruits for donation. You can also search nearby donation sites on AmpleHarvest.org.
If you live inside the quarantine area, fruits may be processed or consumed on the property, so Anuszczyk recommended taking a cue from other local farmers and inviting friends over to cook and can the fruit on site.
Maybe I don’t like oranges. What are other citrus plants that grow well in Sacramento?
With its Mediterranean climate, Sacramento is also friendly turf for many other, lesser-known citrus fruit varieties. Krycia suggests trying Tarocco blood oranges, Gold Nugget mandarins, Kishu mandarins or Buddha’s Hand citron.
Importantly, Krycia recommends buying grafted trees with a dwarfing rootstock (which can turn a regular 20-foot-tall orange tree with 1,000 fruits into a 10-foot-tall tree that’s half as productive) at local reputable nurseries and garden centers that explicitly list the citrus tree’s variety.
“We don’t want people to go to Aunt Tilly’s citrus trees in San Diego and graft onto whatever they have in their backyard,” to avoid potential spread of infestation, Krycia said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated March 14, 2019, to include the announcement of a citrus plant quarantine over Sacramento County after an Asian citrus psyllid was detected in south Sacramento.