The fruit with a colourful past

Why oranges are one of the most exquisite fruits of all

O is for… Orange. Oranges are not the only fruit, as the title of the Jeanette Winterson book has it, but they are one of the loveliest. From fresh juice on summer breakfast tables to treacly marmalade on winter toast, oranges are an integral part of breakfast. [See also: jam]. They are used to treat coughs and colds, to refresh footballers during half time and, studded with fragrant cloves, as a home scent.

Oranges do not occur naturally in the wild. They are thought to have been cultivated in China from around 2,500BC, a cross between two different fruits. They are mentioned in Chinese literature from 314BC. However, it was not until the tenth century that they made it to European shores. Moors brought them to Spain, although at this point only the bitter version of the fruit was planted. In the 1490s, Italian and Portuguese merchants brought the sweet orange that we know today to the Mediterranean. They immediately started a craze. The fruit was precious and delicious, and gave rise to an entirely new type of building: the orangery. These long, low buildings still dot the gardens of Europe’s grand houses, full of heady jasmine and humid warmth. Oranges were also sold at the theatre, wrapped in brown paper, as a sweet snack – and a distraction from the stench of a crowd of bodies. Nell Gwynn was an orange girl before her elevation to mistress-in-chief of Charles II.

The high Vitamin C content of oranges was recognised to prevent scurvy, so orange trees were planted at strategic stopping off points along the major trade routes. Legend has it that Christopher Columbus planted the first orange tree in the Americas, in Hispaniola. From there, they travelled across the continent to California, and the famed Orange County, and Brazil, the largest producer of oranges in the world.

Oranges became so ubiquitous that a colour was named after them. What was previously known as ‘geoluread’ (or yellow-red) in Old English became orange in the sixteenth century. Its symbolic uses are varied and sometimes contradictory. It is sacred in Buddhism – hence why Buddhist monks wear orange robes – but in Christianity represents gluttony. It is the colour of emergency service workers and inmates at Guantanamo Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and Toulouse-Lautrec’s bawdy Parisian scenes. Pre-Raphaelite women often have flaming hair, and the clothes of bacchantes in Renaissance art are usually saffron. It is Agent Orange and autumn, watery at sunrise and neon at sunset.

The region of Orange in southern France has a different etymological origin, coming from the name of a local Celtic water-god called Arausio. The dynasty that was half-formed here, The House of Nassau-Orange, organised the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule that lead to the Eighty Years’ War. It was also from this family that William III, the King of England after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, sprung. The clan was not insensible to the possibilities of its surname, and orange became the official colour of the House. Through this, it came to be associated with Protestantism. Today, the Irish flag has an orange stripe to acknowledge the faith, and the flag of the City of New York also contains orange, paying homage to its origins as a Dutch protestant settlement.

For me, orange is old Penguin book covers and boxes of Seville oranges on the kitchen floor, log fires and the hair of Ophelia in the Millais painting. It is exciting, dangerous, full of possibility. As the advert used to say: the future’s bright, the future’s orange.


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