Skip to Content

Was the first orange green?

This is an intriguing question that many have pondered throughout history. While oranges are commonly known for their bright orange color today, some speculate that the original wild oranges may have actually been green. Let’s take a deeper look at the possible origins of the orange to try to solve this citrus mystery.

The History of Oranges

Oranges are believed to have first originated in Southeast Asia, specifically Southern China, Northeast India and Myanmar. The earliest mentions of oranges in Chinese literature date back over 4,000 years ago to 2200 BCE. These early oranges were likely a variety of mandarin orange called the Chinese bitter orange. The Chinese bitter orange is green when unripe and turns yellow-orange when ripe. It is possible that some of the first cultivated oranges were harvested while still unripe and green.

Oranges only made their way to the West in the 15th century when Portuguese merchants brought sweet oranges from China to Europe. By the 17th century, Portuguese and Spanish traders had introduced oranges to the Caribbean and South America. Many citrus varieties were interbred over the centuries, resulting in new hybrids like the sweet orange, which came to dominate the global market.

While we don’t have conclusive evidence about the color of the absolute first oranges, it is likely that some early varieties were green before they fully ripened to orange. The Chinese bitter orange as well as immature sweet oranges would have started off green. Additionally, some citrus cultivars today like limequats and calamondins remain green even when ripe.

The Significance of Orange Color in Fruits

The vivid orange color of oranges and other fruits is due to natural plant pigments called carotenoids. Carotenoids are organic compounds produced by plants and also found in some bacteria and fungi. There are over 750 types of carotenoids, but only about 10% of them are precursors to vitamin A. The most common carotenoids found in oranges are beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin and violaxanthin.

As chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants, breaks down, carotenoids become unmasked and allow the underlying yellow, red and orange hues to show through. The more carotenoids that accumulate in the chloroplasts of fruit tissue, the more intense the orange color will become. Exposure to light and warmer temperatures can increase carotenoid production.

The purpose of brightly colored pigments like carotenoids in fruit is to attract animals for seed dispersal. The vivid colors signified to ancient ancestors that the fruit was ripe and contained energy-rich sugars and nutrients. Oranges that remained green or yellowish may have been passed over for their riper, orange counterparts.

Are There Still Green Oranges Today?

While oranges turned orange long ago, there are still some unusual citrus varieties that remain green when ripe today. Some examples include:

  • Omani Lime – A tart, green citrus native to Oman
  • Makrut Lime – The distinctive lime used in Thai cuisine
  • Key Lime – The classic bartending lime, smaller and more acidic than common Persian limes
  • Calamondin – A green, sour mandarin hybrid from the Philippines
  • Limequat – A lime and kumquat cross with a mild, lime-like flavor

These citrus types all contain chlorophyll and low amounts of carotenoids compared to sweet oranges. Their green skins when ripe likely helped camouflage them among leaves and branches in the past, hiding them from hungry predators.

Nutritional Differences Between Green and Orange Oranges

While green oranges or orange relatives may seem exotic and special, there are no major nutritional differences between green and orange citrus fruits. Both contain similar vitamins, minerals and plant compounds with potential health benefits. Any variations would be subtle and depend more on specific cultivar than color alone.

That said, fully ripe oranges with deep orange pigments do tend to have higher carotenoid levels. Carotenoids may reduce inflammation, slow skin aging, and play protective roles against certain diseases. Beta-cryptoxanthin in particular may support bone and joint health.

Nutrient Green Orange Ripe Orange
Vitamin C 43.2 mg (36% DV) 70.7 mg (59% DV)
Folate 30 mcg (8% DV) 40 mcg (10% DV)
Potassium 181 mg (4% DV) 237 mg (5% DV)
Beta-cryptoxanthin 0.037 mg 0.115 mg

*DV = Daily Value. Table compares nutrients in 100g of green vs. orange oranges. Data from USDA FoodData Central.


In the end, it seems likely some of the first primitive oranges harvested millennia ago were green, rather than the bright orange we know today. As cultivation advanced, oranges turned increasingly orange in color through selection, breeding, and mutation. While a few odd green cultivars persist, the dominance of the sweet orange today makes it hard to imagine a time when oranges were anything but orange.

So while we can’t say for certain the exact color of the absolute first oranges, the evidence suggests some early varieties were probably green. The advent of orange oranges signaled advantageous traits like ripeness, sweetness and nutritional richness. Over thousands of years, our ancestors unconsciously selected and bred oranges for that vibrant orange color that entices us today.