The first wild ancestors of oranges and lemons probably evolved in Australia and New Guinea. The first people probably began eating them soon after they arrived in Australia, about 30,000 BC. As early as the Stone Age, people were eating citron fruits in China, too. Citron fruit may have reached China by floating in the ocean, or people on boats may have brought it. Citrons spread from the Pacific across Southeast Asia to India, too. From China and India citrons soon reached Central Asia, West Asia, and East Africa. Citron appears in an Egyptian tomb painting from 1000 BC.
These citrons were not juicy, and people mainly ate the rind rather than the fruit, or used citron rind to make perfumes. Indian doctors knew citrus could cure scurvy (Vitamin C deficiency), and so they tried it for a lot of other sicknesses too. Citrons reached ancient Greece and Rome not much later; Theophrastus described the fruit in 310 BC. The Roman writers Virgil and Pliny called citrons mala Medica, “Persian apples”.
But citrons are not the ancestors of the oranges and lemons you eat today. Those came from two other kinds of citrus fruit, cousins of the citron, called the pomelo and the mandarin. Either Chinese or Indian food scientists bred the pomelo and the mandarin together sometime before 314 BC to get new fruits – the bitter orange and the sweet orange. Indian cooks used bitter orange to make pickled oranges. They called the trees naranga. That’s where our word “orange” comes from.
These oranges spread west along the Silk Road. The bitter orange (but not the sweet orange) reached West Asia by the time of Ibn Sina (who used it in a recipe), and then in the Middle Ages, the bitter orange reached Europe, where people used it to make marmelade, and North Africa: Albertus Magnus mentioned bitter oranges around 1250 AD.
Sweet oranges, on the other hand, probably grew only in India and China until near the end of the Middle Ages. Islamic traders brought Indian sweet oranges to East Africa, and they eventually brought sweet oranges to Genoa. People were growing oranges as well as sugar in the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean before the end of the 1400s. But when Portuguese explorers began sailing to India and China, they brought back better varieties, and oranges became very fashionable in Europe in the late 1500s. In northern Europe, where it was too cold for oranges, very rich people in the 1600s even built special glass greenhouses to grow oranges in.
Christopher Columbus brought both oranges and lemons – both new and trendy in Europe – to the Caribbean in 1493. Later Spanish settlers brought the fruit to Florida, to California, to Pueblo land, and to South America – especially Brazil – in the 1500s and 1600s AD, French settlers brought oranges to Louisiana. And when British settlers came to South Africa and Australia in the 1700s AD, they, too, brought oranges and lemons along, so the fruit made a full circle around the world and back to its original home. But in northern places, where oranges and lemons wouldn’t grow, they were still special treats. Children sometimes got an orange in their Christmas stocking. Even in hot places, oranges were not a huge thing.
In the 1800s, all across Europe and Asia, the new train systems meant that for the first time people who lived in cold climates could eat southern oranges shipped north on trains. Trains brought oranges and lemons north to England, France, Germany, Poland, and Russia. After the American Civil War, people built railroads in the United States, too. Oranges, lemons, and grapefruits became much more popular in colder places, and a lot of people began getting their Vitamin C more from sweet oranges and sour lemons than from onions, chard, cauliflower, peas, and spinach as they had before.
When stores started to sell orange juice, in the 1920s, the sweet juice became even more popular than eating the fruit. To pick all that fruit, Florida farm owners recruited African-Americans who had just lost their sharecropping work in Georgia, and then rented prisoners. Recently, they’ve used debt-bondage to force Latinos to work for starvation wages. Today, most Florida orange pickers are Latinos in debt-bondage. But more than a third of the world’s oranges today come on ships from Brazil. Pickers there work under even worse conditions than in Florida; many are young children, from extremely poor families. In both Florida and Brazil, most of the profit goes to the shareholders in big companies, while the pickers stay very poor.