Whence the Orange?

Oranges hail originally from Asia, the most likely place of origin being the southern slopes of the Himalayas, which make up the border between modern-day China and India. Though no one knows for sure, orange cultivation in that part of the world may well date back 5,000 years.

Our word “orange” is a polyglot. Part of it is derived from the Sanskrit word naranga which means, roughly, “perfume inside” and which is the antecedent of the Arabic n?rang and Spanish naranja. By the time orange agriculture spread from Spain and Italy up to what is now Provence in southern France, world had become auranja. Perhaps the “aur” prefix was swiped from the Latin word for gold, aurum, but who really knows? There’s not much that’s definitive in the realm of orange history, hence my prolific use of weasel words and passive constructions.

What is known for certain is that the Persians and Arabs were in possession of oranges well before anyone else in the Western Hemisphere, acquired by way of the Silk Road. It makes sense that the Greeks would have taken possession of them from there, but there’s scant evidence that such a thing ever happened. Some scholars have speculated that the “golden apples” that Gaia gave to Zeus on the day he married Hera were actually oranges, but without much evidence that the Greeks ever consumed oranges, much less grew them, how much sense does that make?

The Romans, it seems, did enjoy oranges but only as an ornamental tree. They maintained lovely and elaborate gardens in which orange trees figured prominently, at least until the savage Lombards blew into town in 568 A.D. and put a stop to that nonsense once and for all.

Oranges didn’t enter Europe proper until the Arabs (Moors) introduced them by force when they invaded Spain from North Africa in 711 A.D.. However it wasn’t terribly long afterward that the Europeans began to encounter them via the Crusades, brought them home and planted them hither and yon. But they only really took off in Italy however, for, as the Floridians have proven so definitively here in America, oranges need warmth to grow. They were used primarily as medicine and for perfume, not to eat, as they were oranges of the bitter variety. Sweet oranges didn’t come onto the European scene for several more hundred years, but that’s another story.

4 thoughts on “Whence the Orange?”

  1. From the Sanskrit, ah? Fascinating. Orangerie, another gem.
    Crepes Suzette are now a must!

  2. Hi Joe,
    Why would u say that oranges originally grew on the southern slopes of the Himalayas? Oranges grow well only in hot weather and here in India the most famous ones are from Nagpur which is hot and very far away from the Himalayas.

    1. Hello Kamal!

      “Slopes” is definitely inaccurate, thanks for pointing that out, Kamal. They research I did on the subject indicated that the original orange trees, which are very different from the trees we have now, first grew in the region just south of the Himalayas. I’m not an expert on the subject of course, but that’s what my sources said. Let me know if you have other information and I will gladly put it up!


      – Joe

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