Bites of History: South Louisiana has tons of citrus, but it’s not native to the area

Satsumas, grapefruit, limes, Meyer lemons, navel oranges — isn’t it great that these citrus fruits grow so prolifically in south Louisiana!

But although they’re so common to our region, no citrus are native to our semitropical state. Instead, those luscious, familiar members of the Rutaceae family mostly originated in Southeast Asia and took winding historical roads to our backyards.

Citrus was first domesticated either in southern China or northern India around 1000 BC. Although there is speculation that ancient Egyptians and Hebrews also knew about citrus, the first recording of Citrus medica L. was made after Alexander the Great brought citron to Europe in the late 4th century BC.

The citron is sort of like a large lemon with a furrowed and leathery rind, and it is from this word that the genus name Citrus is derived.

The Arabs, too, have a long history with lemons and limes, two types of citrus that didn’t appear in Europe until the Middle Ages, when they were initially considered ornamentals with a nice scent.

The European citrus world was shaken up in the 15th century when the sweet, and therefore more edible, orange was introduced, resulting in a dramatic surge in citrus planting.

While Christopher Columbus was in Haiti in 1493, he supposedly planted sour orange, sweet orange, citron, lemon, lime and pummelo, the largest of the citrus.

By 1565, these trees were well established in Florida and up through coastal South Carolina. Meanwhile, in the 1500s the Spanish brought the sweet orange to Mexico, and it is believed that the French carried this particular species up to Louisiana.

Lemonades, lemon puddings, custards and pastries took hold in America in the early 1700s, and by 1795 tankards of lime juice and rum were preventing scurvy in British sailors, who, since that time, were known as “limeys.”

Grapefruit wasn’t documented until the mid-18th century, when a hybrid of the orange and pummelo appeared in the West Indies. And the Meyer lemon, a cross between a lemon and an orange and native to China, didn’t reach our shores until 1908. Orange and grapefruit juices have been canned and marketed since about 1915, and concentrated frozen juices were marketed in the 1930s.

Florida is second only to Brazil in global orange juice production, and that sunny American state remains the world’s largest producer of grapefruit.

Louisiana’s commercial citrus industry started back in the 1880s, when small plantings were made in the warmer regions below New Orleans.

By the early 1900s, farmers were exporting citrus by rail and up and down the Mississippi River. Through the years, hurricanes, freezes, insects and disease have all proved challenging to our local oranges and grapefruit. Even so, the citrus industry in Plaquemines Parish alone is worth $5 million annually.

The same maladies that set back our commercial farmers also plague the trees we grow at home. But when a rare cold snap kills our grapefruit, or some unidentified bug befalls our lime, we usually just start over.

So many Louisianians feel that a yard just isn’t a yard without at least one citrus, such as a satsuma, a mandarin orange variety that originated in yet another far-off land, namely Japan.

Sources: Egerton, John. Southern Food (UNC Press, 1993); McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking (Scribner, 1984); Malcolm, Patrick. “History of Citrus,” www.ezinearticles.com

Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’s title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her through www.cynthianobles.com.