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Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Citrus
Foods From Spain History: The Citrus Route. China-Middle East-Spain-The Americas

Foods From Spain History: The Citrus Route. China-Middle East-Spain-The Americas

The term ‘citrus fruits’ covers the fruits of evergreen bushes of the genus Citrus (native to tropical and subtropical Asia), which have a typically high content of citric acid. There appear to be just three main species, from which all others have been obtained subsequently by hybridization: Citrus maxima, C. medica and C. reticulata, namely Chinese grapefruit, citron and mandarin. The main hybrids grown and traded in are bergamot (Citrus x bergamia), lime (Citrus x aurantifolia), lemon (Citrus x limon), grapefruit (Citrus x paradisi), orange (Citrus x sinensis) and bitter orange (Citrus x aurantium).

Europe’s first citrus fruits

The origins and spread of citrus fruits are still somewhat unclear. They all seem to have originated in some part of China, south-eastern India and the Malay archipelago approximately twenty million years ago. Some of them spread from their region of origin to Europe via the Middle East, while the rest were imported by Portuguese traders.

The first mention of citrus fruits having reached Europe occurs in connection with Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.), who imported the citron (mêlon Medikón or kítrion) from Persia. Citrus fruits reached Greece and Rome around the first century 1.AD.They are sometimes identified with such sacred and mythological fruits as the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the golden apples involved in one of the twelve labors of Hercules.

However, traditionally Palladius had been credited with having introduced the citron into Greece and Rome in the 4th century, while the next citrus fruits to reach Europe were believed to have been brought in by the Arabs from Al- Ándalus in the 11th century. This tradition was revised after 1951, however, when paintings were found in Pompeii and Herculaneum that seem to feature lemons and oranges. This might indicate that these exotic fruits were imported earlier from the East, though not the plants on which they grew since there are no other mentions of orange or lemon trees existing in Ancient Rome. Another possibility is that the fruits depicted are actually citrons rather than lemons.

The Romans introduced citron growing into the Iberian Peninsula: the citron tree is mentioned by Spain’s St. Isidro of Seville (562-636) in his Etimologías (Book XVII, Chapter VII, 8).

Irrigation in al-Ándalus

Although systems of water management channels already existed in Roman and Visigothic Spain, it was the Muslim occupation of large areas of the Iberian Peninsula (711-1492) that produced the real revolution in harnessing water as a resource. The Muslims were skilled at irrigation and imported innovative methods already in use in the Middle East and North Africa, and also applied and improved upon ancient oriental treatises on agriculture. In the south of the Peninsula they deployed lifting machinery to extract water from wells, and hydraulic devices like the water wheel; along the east coast they capitalized on the natural lie of the land to divert river water to 2.crop-growing areas. Clever use of water, land and climate resources, and the introduction and improvement of a wide range of fruit trees (citrus, cherry, pomegranate, fig, almond, date …) and vegetables (aubergine/eggplant, spinach, asparagus, artichoke…) laid the foundations of the rich fruit growing heritage that the autonomous community of Valencia still possesses, and is still famous for, today.

As a result of these advances in agricultural technique and the wide variety of species they grew, the Muslims occupying the Iberian Peninsula could eat fresh fruit and vegetables all year round. Indeed, consuming large quantities of fruit and vegetables became so characteristic of Al-Ándalus that the Spanish Inquisition used it to test for adherence to the Muslim faith.

From China to Middle East

After the Chinese, Arab authors provide the earliest mentions of citrus species other than the citron. From the 10th century on, there is abundant Arabic written evidence of the presence of lemon and orange trees in Iraq and Persia. From the 12th century on, citrus trees adorned the orchards, gardens and streets of Seville and other Andalusian towns. The Muslims introduced the growing and eating of lemons (11th - 13th centuries), of bitter oranges (11th century), and limes in the areas of the Iberian Peninsula that they occupied. It is possible that these plants also reached other parts of Europe from Palestine at around the same period, conveyed there by crusaders. In any case, if there were lemons and oranges in Europe earlier than the 11th century they would have been rarities.

Sweet orange growing was well established in Spain by the 16th century, though there are no earlier references to pinpoint its introduction before that date. It seems likely that it was introduced by the occupying Arabs during the 15th century or earlier, but it could also have reached Europe via Portuguese or Genoese trade with Asia. The sweet orange (Citrus x sinensis) is the ancestor of the main varieties of orange sold all over the world today.

Spain spreads citrus as crop and commodity

Spain spreads citrus as crop and commodity

Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566) announces in his writings that, on his second voyage to the Americas (1493), Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) took with him orange, lemon and citron seeds for sowing on the islands of Hispaniola and La Isabela. Thus, in the 15th century, a crop was implanted in the Americas that would spread rapidly to the Antilles and Central America. Spanish colonizers later carried orange seeds to Florida and California, where they developed into luxuriant citrus woods.

There is also evidence from the 15th century on of the spread of orange and lemon growing in various areas of Europe, such as the 3.Netherlands.

The citrus fruit that is definitely known to have been introduced as a result of Portuguese trade is the ‘Chinese orange’ (better and sweeter than those known hitherto) brought back in 1518 by explorer Vasco da Gama on his return from a two-year-long voyage.

One of the last commercial species of citrus to be introduced into Europe was the mandarin orange in the 19th century, though again it is not known in what year that occurred or whether it arrived first in England in 1805 or in Palermo, where it was already being grown commercially by 1840. The first root stocks of the species seem to have arrived in Spain in 1845, imported by the Count of Ripalda (1817-1877). In the latter half of the 19th century, the Washington navel orange was created in Brazil: of exceptionally fine quality, it was soon being exported to the US, South Africa and Australia. It was the progenitor of California’s sweet, pipless Navel Washington variety, queen of all oranges.

An even more recent arrival in Spain was the grapefruit (Citrus x paradisi), a hybrid between the fruit known as pummelo, shaddock, pampelmusa or cimboa (Citrus maxima), and the sweet orange (Citrus x sinensis). This appeared in the Caribbean in the mid-18th century, not reaching Valencia until 1910. Grapefruit were first grown commercially in Spain in the Carcaixent area of Valencia in 1929.

Oranges from Valencia (Spain)

Oranges from Valencia (Spain)

Evidence from various sources indicates that Spain was already trading in citrus fruits by the 16th and 17th century, particularly fruits grown in Valencia, which were known for their fine texture and sweetness. Bitter citrus fruits were also grown in quantity in Cantabria, whence they were exported, primarily to France, England and Flanders.

Towards the end of the 18th century, a priest named Vicente Monzó established the first plantation of sweet oranges in Carcaixent. During this period, citrus plantations started to be substituted for various traditional crops in several parts of the Valencia region. Orange trees spread gradually until the mid-19th century, at first being planted in traditionally irrigated land and then in unirrigated farmland into which watering systems were gradually introduced. In 1856, the first plantations of mandarins were initiated; they were soon taken up as a crop throughout Castellón Province, particularly in the municipality of 4.Vila-real. Ongoing research was conducted into improving citrus varieties, as exemplified by an application by Murcia’s Agricultural Institute to the Minister of the day for permission to bring into Spain the 26 species of orange tree just discovered by a recent expedition to 5.Cochinchina (today’s Vietnam). In 1873, orange groves occupied just 6.810 acres in the Valencian region as a whole, nearly all of them planted after 1840. From that date on, orange growing increased constantly and at such a rate that, by 1908, the growing area had increased to 6.92.415 acres. This boom in citrus production is attributable to dietary changes taking place at the time which led to the inhabitants of the industrialized countries eating more fresh fruit. Improved transport and advances in chilling techniques made it possible to meet the increased, and in 1894 over 308.646,800 lb of citrus fruit were exported.

By the turn of the 20th century, citrus growing had become a mainstay of Spanish agriculture and had spread throughout the eastern coastal region of the Peninsula. It has continued to expand and, but for the period from the 1930s to 1950s, production of citrus fruits has shown a positive, though increasingly moderate, growth rate ever 7.since. Expansion in Spain’s citrus production since 1980 can be attributed to its spread into growing areas in the provinces of Seville and Huelva (Andalusía), namely outside the Valencian region, within which natural limits are by now making their presence felt.

Fruit gains status

In the modern era, there was a shift of attitude towards fruit. One force for change was the emergence in the latter half of the 19th century of a vegetarian movement that had been gestating in Germany since the century before, its influence being spread by such books as Cristoph Wilhelm Hufeland’s (1762-1836) Macrobiotics, and Theodor Hahn’s (1824-1883) Natural Diet, the Diet of the Future (1857). Other influences were advances in the field of medicine, again from the late 18th century on, when the link between certain ailments and vitamin deprivation was discovered and foods containing those vitamins were identified, so that it became advisable to eat a varied diet involving more fruit and vegetables.

The combined effects of these factors, and a gradual departure from the traditional diet (as reflected in an increasing number of recipes for meatless dishes in cookery books published between the 17th and 19th centuries) changed eating habits to such an extent that, in Europe as a whole, fruit and vegetable consumption doubled in the course of the 19th century and then doubled again 1950. Nowadays, eating fruit and vegetables is considered one of the main characteristics of the Mediterranean diet and a passport to good health.

Evolution: citrus selection processes

Evolution: citrus selection processes

Fruits, especially citrus fruits, are among the most spectacular examples of evolution brought about by human intervention and selection. Many modern species either did not exist a few decades or centuries ago, or are the descendants of wild species no longer recognizable as relations just a few millennia on.

The precursors of today’s species were created by early growers who, having spotted differences between some specimens and others within the same species, began an artificial process of positive selection (also known as ‘basal’ selection) consisting of keeping the biggest seeds from the best fruits obtained from the most productive plants. A second phase - creating hybrid species by crossing one with another - succeeded the discovery of gender in plants (from the late 17th century on). However, it was the formulation of the laws of genetics (by Mendel) and theories of mutation (starting with de Vries) in the 19th century that produced the greatest advances in this field.

Citrus fruits today in Spain

The agrochemical and technological revolution that occurred in the 20th century made it possible for any fruit or vegetable species to be grown intensively at any time of the year using greenhouses and chemical fertilizers. New species were also created, and varieties were specifically tailored to meet consumer demands, while advances in finely-tuned industrial chilling made it possible to keep produce fresh for longer.

As well as continuous production increases, the 20th century saw new species being introduced (such as Washington Navel, an orange imported in 1910, and varieties Duncan, Marsh, McCarty, Triumph and Walter, imported from the US in 1926). This made it possible for the commercial season for citrus fruits to occupy more of the year since the new varieties ripened at different times from the pre-existing ones. By diversifying supply, they also equipped growers to ride out production crises caused by disease and, especially, frosts: notoriously, in 1956, frosts reduced production from the projected 1.102.310.000 lb to a mere 138.891.060 lb.

Since 1975, a Citrus Variety Improvement Programme has been operating in Spain and has introduced a technique of micro-grafting in vitro to obtain completely virus free plant varieties.

Citrus growing is so entrenched in Spain that one single region – Valencia ,also known as the Autonomous Community of Valencia, - is not only the main national producer (accounting for over 60% of production), but also the main producer in Europe (producing 37% of all the EU’s citrus fruits) and the Mediterranean basin as a whole. Spain also is the leading exporter of citrus fruits in the world.


Enrique García Ballesteros, (BA in Early Modern and Modern History and MA in Communication and Journalism) is a Spanish historian, writer and journalist. He has published over a hundred scientific and general interest articles on history and the media in prestigious magazines such as Historia National Geographic and La Aventura de la Historia. He has also authored biographies, interviews and book reviews for major institutions and the Spanish press. He is a regular contributor to the Spanish national daily newspapers El Mundo and Público (now online version only).

Research coordination: María del Carmen Simón Palmer, has a phD in history and is a research professor at the Spanish National Research Council, CSIC. She is a member of the governing body of the Real Academia de Gastronomía. Her published works include: La cocina de Palacio (1591-1932), (Castalia, 1997) and Bibliografía de la Gastronomía y Alimentación en España, (Trea, 2003).

Translation: Hawys Pritchard, M.A. (University of London) is a freelance translator currently based in Wales and Mallorca. Her work has appeared in various books and magazines (including Spain Gourmetour) that reflect her interest in food, wine, travel, art and architecture.

Photo credits

Spain spreads citrus as a crop and commodity
Portrait of Bartolomé de Las Casas. Author unknown. XVIth century. General Archive of the Indies, Seville, Spain. Licensed under Creative Commons by Unamurdin.

Oranges from Valencia
Advertising poster from Frutas Vicente Mont. Anonymous author, 1920, in The Promotion of Spain's Foreign Trade in 100 posters 1880-1950, ICEX, Madrid, Spain, ISBN 84-921966-6-1.

Evolution: citrus selection process
Bodegón de limones. Still life with lemons, Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, Spain