I want to tell you about an amazing heirloom navel we’re getting from Bernard Ranches (50 acres in Riverside County, about 430 miles from Bi-Rite). But first, a little background on how we arrived at the navel on our shelf today:
Navel orange trees in general, and Washington navel orange trees in particular, are not very vigorous trees. They have a round, somewhat drooping canopy and grow to a moderate size at maturity. The flowers lack viable pollen so the Washington navel orange will not pollinate other citrus trees. Because of the lack of functional pollen and viable ovules, the Washington navel orange produces seedless fruits. These large round fruits have a slightly pebbled orange rind that is easily peeled, and the navel, really a small secondary fruit, sometimes protrudes from the apex of the fruit. The Washington navel orange is at its best in the late fall to winter months, but will hold on the tree for several months beyond maturity and stores well.
The introduction that led to adoption of the name Washington and to its commercialization in California occurred in 1870, when twelve budded trees were received from the Bahia region, on the Atlantic coast north of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil by William 0. Saunders, superintendent of gardens and grounds for the U.S. D.A. in Washington. These trees were planted in a greenhouse and immediately propagated for distribution.
Several years later, trees were sent to a number of people in California and Florida. Among those who received trees were Eliza Tibbets of Riverside, CA. Before leaving Washington, Eliza Tibbets, a friend of Saunders, persuaded him to ship two of the navel orange trees that originated in Brazil to the Tibbets home in Riverside. The trees were planted in 1874-5. Anecdotes have it that Eliza nurtured the little trees with her dishwater!
Upon maturing the fruit was found to be superior in every way. Bud sales were brisk, and the two trees, ringed with barbed wire, became famous. Although officially called the Bahia, the fruit was soon dubbed the Riverside Navel, and its popularity eventually made Riverside a citrus center and prosperous showplace. In fact, one of two original Navel Orange trees planted in 1874-5 spawned California’s entire citrus industry. Navel oranges have no seeds, so cuttings from original trees were used to start navel orange groves across southern California, and an industry grew. Every navel orange grown and eaten in California is a descendant of this tree, which still stands as a historical monument in a small park at the corner of Magnolia and Arlington in Riverside.
Now, zoom in on Bernard Ranches:
Vince and Vicki Bernard pride themselves on the superior flavor and sweetness of their citrus fruit, which they attribute to the combination of their rich soil and suitable climate, as well as the use of seaweed as a fertilizer. They began farming their land in 1979 and have been bringing their produce to market since 1980. They work their farm together and sell their fruit themselves. They farm their land sustainably, from the use of hand weeding, to the release of beneficial insects (parasitic wasps, lady beetles, & lace wigs), to hand trapping gophers (they do not use synthetic pesticides).
At Bi-Rite we are blessed to have Bernard Ranches’ fresh picked heirloom navels on the shelves in the market, which are descendants of exactly the same heritage line as those originals from Brazil. We are just getting started with them and hoping they are around all throughout spring just like last season. Already they are easy to peel, super juicy with a soft silky texture that just melts. Additionally the flavor is AMAZINGLY SWEET like honey or nectar that goes great with acid to make what is probably the most classic tasting citrus on our shelves. My experience is that it is almost hard to eat just one.