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What color were original oranges?

Oranges are one of the most popular fruits around the world. We eat them, drink their juice, and use their fragrant peel in cooking. But have you ever wondered – what color were oranges originally, before we started cultivating them?

The common orange of today (Citrus x sinensis) is a hybrid of ancient wild citrus varieties, believed to have originated in Southeast Asia thousands of years ago. Through generations of selective breeding, oranges have become larger, sweeter, and orange in color. However, their ancestors were likely different colors.

Wild citrus fruits tend to be smaller and green, greenish-yellow, or reddish-orange. The original oranges were probably a more muted and variegated color than the bold orange we know today. Let’s take a look at the origins of the orange to unravel the mystery of its true original color.

The Ancestors of Orange

All citrus fruits – from tiny kumquats to large grapefruit – belong to the genus Citrus, which emerged around 8 million years ago. The citrus varieties we know today are actually hybrids of a few core ancestral species.

Ancestral Citrus Species Description
Citron (Citrus medica) The largest and most acidic progenitor, believed to have originated in India or Southeast Asia. Large, thick-skinned, slow to hybridize. Still cultivated for etrog used during Sukkot festival.
Mandarin (Citrus reticulata) Small, loose-skinned fruit originating in China. Quick to hybridize. Includes tangerines, clementines, satsumas.
Pomelo (Citrus maxima) Massive ancestor from Southeast Asia. Grapefruit is a hybrid of pomelo x orange.

These three core species are important ancestors of the many hybrid citrus types we enjoy today. By mapping citrus DNA, researchers have traced the origins of popular oranges, lemons, limes and more back to these root stocks.

The citron is believed to have diverged from the rest of the genus Citrus first. It was carried along early trade routes to the Mediterranean and was described in texts as early as 300 BC. These large, thick-skinned fruits were highly aromatic but acidic.

The mandarin originated in China and likely emerged after the citron. It was quicker to hybridize with other species. The mandarin crosses readily with citron to produce citrons with loose, orange-colored peel.

Finally, the pomelo arose in Southeast Asia and interbred with mandarin to create the early oranges. The varied colors of these ancestral fruits contributed to the rainbow of orange shades we see today.

Early Cultivation in Southeast Asia

The early oranges that emerged from mandarin x pomelo crosses were small, seedy fruits with variegated colors. They were first cultivated in the lower Mekong River basin region of Southeast Asia, around 2500 BC. These proto-oranges were often greenish or yellowish with splotches of orange and red color.

Early oranges were treasured for their fragrance and medicinal value and were brought along trade routes to Persia and the Mediterranean. The Persians called them “naranj,” giving rise to the name orange. In India, early oranges were called “naranga.”

Variations in Orange Color

As oranges were propagated across Asia and the Middle East, new cultivars emerged with a range of colors. Variations occurred based on differences in climate, soil, and pollinator insects that contributed to cross-breeding.

The oranges carried to the Mediterranean by Arab traders around 100 AD were likely still greenish or yellow-orange. Sweet orange varieties were brought from China to Italy in the 15th century, but were still prized more for their aromatics than their color.

A 16th century Portuguese shipwreck off the coast of Florida carried sweet orange trees along with lime and lemon trees. Spanish explorers introduced these to Florida, launching citrus production in North America.

Development of the Sweet Orange

By the early 18th century, oranges were still varying greatly in size, texture, acidity, and hue. Different cultivars ranged from yellow to red to greenish orange.

Around this time, orange breeders began to select for sweeter, redder varieties to meet market demand. The emergence of the sweet orange and increased production in Brazil and the Caribbean led to wider availability of the fruit globally.

Advances in transportation technology also allowed oranges to be shipped farther without spoiling. Orange breeding became sophisticated, with select genes chosen to enhance sweetness, texture, yield, and of course, vibrant color.

Why Did Oranges Become Orange?

Originally, the mixed colors of oranges helped them blend into foliage as camouflage from foraging animals. But as oranges came under cultivation, priorities changed.

The striking orange color arose from selective breeding to distinguish the ripe fruit on the tree. The pigment that gives oranges their vibrant hue is carotenoid. Orange peel is loaded with carotenoids, while the flesh accumulates carotenes.

Beta-carotene is the most well-known carotenoid because our bodies convert it to vitamin A. Lycopene and xanthophyll carotenoids add to the orange palette. The more carotenoids, the more golden the flesh and zesty the peel.

Humans gravitated towards oranges richest in carotenoids for their nutritious qualities and brilliant color. Over many generations of breeding, the signature orange look emerged.

Heirloom Orange Varieties

While most commercial orange production focuses on a few major cultivars like Valencia and navel oranges, heirloom varieties offer diversity. Here are some heirloom oranges that reflect the range of colors before oranges became so uniformly orange:

Heirloom Variety Description
Sanguinelli Originating in Italy, the “blood orange” has maroon flesh and a ruddy rind.
Shamouti Middle Eastern “Jaffa orange” is yellow-orange with blushed peel.
China Mandarin Descendant of an early mandarin hybrid, with loose yellow-orange rind.
Moro Sicilian blood orange with deep crimson flesh and scarlet rind.

These and other heirloom varieties offer a glimpse of the rainbow of colors original oranges once displayed. Their flesh spans orange, red, yellow, greenish and even white.

Orange Color Influences Taste

The distinctive orange color results from carotenoids, which also contribute to flavor. Red anthocyanins in blood oranges also add to their complexity.

In general, a deeper orange hue signals higher sugar content in an orange. Rind color indicates stage of ripeness, while inner color is influenced by acidity and carotenoid levels.

Temperature and weather affect orange color too. Cool winter nights help oranges develop richer color by turning on pigment production. Hot summers can bleach out color, resulting in paler oranges.

Once picked, oranges don’t get any sweeter, so optimal orange color and some yield to finger pressure indicates ripeness. Green blotches under the skin show an under-ripe orange.

How Color Affects Nutrition

Orange color corresponds with nutritional value. Deeper orange peels contain higher phytonutrients. The most intense varieties offer about ten times more phytonutrients than pale oranges.

In the flesh, a rich orange hue signals abundant carotenoids, including antioxidant vitamin A precursors. Redder and darker oranges generally pack more antioxidants.

A 2012 study rated the antioxidant levels of orange varieties by color. Blood oranges came out on top, followed by Cara Cara, then Washington navel, and finally the pale Hamlin.

So seeking out the richest, deepest colored oranges will provide superior nutrition. But all types deliver healthy benefits, so eat a range of shades for variety.

Global Color Symbolism

Beyond nutrition, orange color also carries symbolic meanings in cultures worldwide:

Culture Orange Symbolism
Western Energy, warmth, vibrance
United States Fall harvest season
Netherlands National color representing Dutch Royal Family
Hindu Saffron color connected to spirituality
Buddhist Represents the robes of monks

From sacred Buddhist robes to the bright hues of a harvest festival, orange transcends its nutritional benefits, woven into diverse cultural traditions.

Orange Production Today

Modern orange farming and distribution networks ensure we can enjoy fresh oranges globally year-round. The majority of cultivation now occurs in:

Country Tonnes Produced (2020)
Brazil 15,823,764
China 7,170,980
United States 5,671,520
India 5,162,000
Mexico 4,036,050

China, Brazil, Florida, and California lead orange production, followed by Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. Demand is rising for sustainable, heirloom, and organic orange varieties.


From their origins in ancient Asia to modern ubiquity, oranges have come a long way from their early green and yellow stages. We have selective breeding and cultivation to thank for their bold, vibrant orange hues. Their color reflects phytonutrient content, ripeness, and flavor.

Beyond nutrition and aesthetics, the orange carries cultural symbolism and heritage around the world. Orange color runs deep in human history, associated with warmth, harvest, and renewal across civilizations.

So the original oranges were definitely not orange! But over centuries, the vibrant color came to signify the succulent citrus fruits we know and love. Whether pale or deep orange, the colorful globes remain globally beloved.