Florida on a Tankful - Ridge Island Groves
By Lauren Tjaden
Citrus is an integral part of Florida’s identity, intertwined with its history, part of its landscape, and still leaving its intoxicating mark today.
In the Sunshine State, the orange is the official state fruit, orange juice is the state beverage, and the orange blossom is the state flower. And when you stop at one of the Official Florida Welcome Centers on the way into the state, you’re greeted with a cup of free Florida orange juice—a tradition since 1949.
Here, you can pick Florida oranges straight from the tree, baptized with sunshine and surrounded with a halo of perfume that invites you to take a bite; discover plump, delicately-skinned Florida grapefruit; and indulge in the ultimate sweetness of Florida mandarins and tangerines.
Yes, it’s that good. Dedicated growers combined with Florida’s sub-tropical weather, abundant rainfall, a bounty of sunshine and sandy soil promise the perfect recipe for the sweetest, juiciest citrus in the world.
Here's where you can discover some fun facts about the Sunshine State’s signature fruit.
Florida growers produce various types of Florida citrus, including oranges, grapefruit and specialty fruits that include Temple oranges, tangerines and tangelos.
The primary varieties of Florida oranges are Navel, Hamlin, Pineapple, Ambersweet and Valencia, with the fresh orange season typically running from October through June. Fun Fact: Almost 88% of an orange is just Vitamin C.
The primary varieties of Florida grapefruit are Ruby Red, Flame, Thompson, Marsh and Duncan, with the fresh grapefruit season typically running from September through June. Fun fact: After a stressful day, pamper your feet and hands in a bowl of warm water mixed with 100% Florida Grapefruit Juice.
Florida producers grow a handful of specialty fruit that includes Florida tangerines and mandarins. Besides being scrumptious, these fresh fruits contain vital nutrients. They’re in season from October through April. Fun fact: Mandarin oranges aren’t oranges at all. To avoid misunderstanding, they’re often simply called “mandarins.” Mandarins of a deep, orange-red color are called “tangerines.”
You can check out more details about your favorites from the Florida Department of Citrus.
How Florida Citrus is Harvested
Citrus in Florida isn’t picked until it’s reached maturity, and it doesn’t ripen more after picking. So at the right moment, workers carefully hand pick the fruit and place it in large canvas bags. The bags are then moved into specialized vehicles called “goats” that transport the harvested fruit from the grove to roadside tractor-trailers. Citrus grown for fresh consumption is hauled to packinghouses where it’s washed, graded and packed. Citrus produced for juice is transported by truck to processing plants for juice extraction.
Get a Taste of the Citrus Industry
If you want to experience the process of how it all happens yourself, you can pick your own fresh Florida citrus at Showcase of Citrus in Clermont; visit a real Florida packing house at Al’s Family Farms in Fort Pierce; and tour a working farm at Ridge Island Groves in Haines City. There, you’re invited to pluck oranges from a tree. For an incomparable delight, eat one while it’s still warm from the sun.
When you go, check out Where to Visit Orange Groves & Farms in Florida as well as this interactive map of citrus growers close to you.
Fun Fact: Oranges are technically a berry.
Green is Good (So is Orange)
Citrus is a big plus for Florida's environment. A modern grove design provides large areas of undeveloped land, delivering an exceptional wildlife habitat and a natural barrier between farmlands and urban development. University of Florida researchers recently observed more than 159 native species of wildlife within grove ecosystems. Research shows that for every acre of mature trees, 16.7 tons of oxygen is produced per year.
Fun Fact: A single 140-gram orange supplies a whopping 92% of the Vitamin C intake you need in a day.
Florida’s Citrus History
Christopher Columbus brought the first citrus to the New World in 1493. In 1513, Spanish explorers including Ponce De Leon, Hernan Cortez, and Hernando DeSoto brought citrus to Florida. In the mid-1500s, one of the early Spanish explorers --most likely Ponce de Leon-- planted the first orange trees around St. Augustine, Florida.
Almost 250 years later, in 1763, Jesse Fish of St. Augustine created the first commercial citrus grove. The industry grew and in 1776, the first references to the shipment of fruit out of Florida appeared in writing, where it was noted that 65,000 oranges and 2 caskets of juice went via boat to England. After the Civil War, commercial production began in earnest, thanks to the development of the railroad that allowed citrus growers to ship their products across the country.
In 1894 and 1895, freezes devastated much of the state’s citrus crops. Refusing to be beaten, many citrus growers went further south and started growing again.
Within 15 years, the industry rallied and by 1950, Florida produced over 100 million boxes of citrus. In 1970, that number reached 200 million. At that point, citrus had grown into a billion-dollar industry, and orange juice could be shipped all over the U.S., with television spreading the word.
You can read more about Florida’s citrus history here, with challenges through the years that included blights, freezes and hurricanes, and the successes that helped it flourish, like discoveries about insects, ways to increase productions—like topping trees—and advertising to help it stay in the public eye.
Today, most citrus is grown in the southern two-thirds of the Florida peninsula, where probability of freezing temperatures is lowest, although Polk County in Central Florida holds reign as the top citrus producing county in the state.
Fun Fact: In 1982, scientists in Lake Alfred, Florida, learned that micro-sprinkler irrigation offered citrus tree protection from freezing.