OCs vanishing orange groves

Valencia orange

It seems like yesterday that you could drive down any freeway in OC and see miles of Orange Groves. Does anyone know where even a single grove exists today?

Contrary to popular belief, Orange County, CA was not named for its orange groves. The county was given the name “Orange” in the late 1800s as a marketing ploy to attract emigration to the area.  Orange County was initially dotted with cattle ranches. When the cattle business declined due to disease, ranchers started planting orange trees. Oranges became so successful that it quickly became the dominant agricultural product of the county. By the early 1900s, over 13% of the county land was devoted to Orange groves. Orange County and oranges became one.

old grove

old grove

My connection with citrus came early in life. My family first moved from chilly New England to sunny Goleta, CA. There were lemon groves everywhere in this city. The home my parents purchased on Ravenscroft Drive was surrounded by miles of lemon groves. These fields were great to explore and the wonderful smell of citrus blossoms always permeated the air. Field trips at  Fairvew elementary school always included visits to the local Sunkist lemon packing plant. For me, citrus quickly became an integral part of living in California.

After a brief return to the east coast, we once again moved to California; this time to Fullerton in North Orange County. Most of the original orange ranches of Fullerton had already been destroyed, but you didn’t need to go far to see vast amounts of existing orange groves. A trip south on the I5 freeway revealed miles of orange groves in Irvine and San Juan. The El Toro Marine air base was surrounded by vast amounts of orange groves.  Slowly these fields gave way to the bulldozer and to progress. It was so slow it was almost peripheral. Just a few years ago I witnessed the withering and bulldozing of a large grove at the top of Bake Parkway in Lake Forest. Over a period of months, this grove of orange trees slowly turned brown, due to a lack of irrigation. Then, the dozers came and each tree was uprooted and destroyed.

 So what if they’re bulldozing a few more orange groves. This is Orange County. Aren’t there thousand of acres of orange groves left? 

Unfortunately, no….At one time there were 67,000 acres of Valencia oranges alone in Orange County, enough acreage to account for about 13% of the total County land. Today, the estimate is that are only 100 acres of vintage orange groves left in all of Orange County, and most of these remaining groves are already doomed. About half (50 acres) is already scheduled to be demolished within a year or two.

Santa Ana grove

5-acre grove in Santa Ana

One remaining example is the 5 acre patch in Santa Ana with the original owner’s cottage on the street corner. The remains of this once, great orchard lie between tract houses and a city park. It is estimated to be the last, sizeable orange grove remaining in this city. When a descendant of the family died in 2006, the cottage was boarded up and the property transferred to Concordia University, which has plans are to demolish the grove and build 24 homes on the site (just what a city with over 700 unsold homes really needs)  Note: see update on this grove below

Ignacio Lujano

Ignacio Lujano at the Swanner ranch in San Juan Capistrano

Another, rather heart-wrenching example involves the grove and caretaker of the Swanner Ranch in San Juan Capistrano. For 40 years, Ignacio Lujano lived in a small house on the property and tended to the orange trees. In the fall of 2008, the city of San Juan Capistrano evicted 85-year-old Lujano and now plans to convert the remaining 5 acres of historic orange groves into a city maintenance facility.  You can read more on this story, here. http://blogs.ocweekly.com/navelgazing/2008/08/ignacio_lujano_leaves_the_swan.php

San Juan house  withering grove

I took this picture of Lujano’s former home on the Swanner ranch, just before the home was bulldozed. The other picture shows dying orange trees on the other side of the railroad tracks in San Juan.

A few remnants of Orange County’s once vast and magnificent Orange ranches remain as small, withered groves, fenced off on forgotten city blocks in Fullerton, Anaheim, and other places. Destruction and re-development of these plots is inevitable.

Remnant grove in Fullerton

Remnant grove in Fullerton

Others exist on private residences. Until now, the owners have withstood change, but the question is, how long will they (or their heirs) be able to resist the temptation of the developer’s dollar?

12682 Red Hill Ave before

12682 Red Hill Ave after

Check out the two photos above. The photo on the top shows a vintage farm house in Tustin surrounded by an original section of orange grove. This home was offered for sale, but it looks like it was bought by an investor. Now Look at the lower photo. Its apparent that the home and grove were bulldozed in order to build multi-family units on the property. Which picture appeals more to you?

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Will Orange County ever return to a time where there were thousands of acres of oranges? Obviously not. But does that mean we should destroy the last vestiges of our farming heritage?  Once these final trees are gone, Orange County’s orange groves will be gone forever.  What we should do is to urge the County and the cities that still hold a vintage grove, to preserve them as a living example of our history. A few acres of groves, perhaps with an original farmhouse or cottage, would make a wonderful living museum., This would be a place where our children and grandchildren would have the opportunity to romp among the orange trees, and get a taste of what life was like in Orange County, one hundred years ago.

Update Aug 1, 2012:  One 5-acre orange grove remains in Santa Ana on East Santa Clara Ave. The property also contains a turn-of-the century craftsman home. A small group of preservationists are fighting hard to save this grove from the developers who hope to build 24 homes on the parcel.  The preservationists’ efforts were bolstered in June, 2012 when Santa Ana city council gave the property a historic designation. While this alone does not ultimately save the grove, it does require city officials to look at alternatives to uprooting the trees. The coalition to save the property hopes to convert the home and grove into a historical monument.

From the preservationists’ web site: ” The Save Our Orchard Coalition believes that this orchard is too important to be destroyed in order to construct more houses in Santa Ana. Given the agricultural history of Orange County and the fact that this orchard and family home may be the last intact example of our agricultural past left in the entire county of Orange, we will continue to fight for its preservation, promotion and recognition as an historic site. Looking to the future, we see this five-acre orchard as an important resource for our community and believe that it can be developed into an example of sustainable living and education for this and future generations.”

If you would like to help save this grove, which is one of OC’s last intact orange groves, please visit this web site: https://www.facebook.com/SaveOurOrchard  and please donate!

Additional links

A vanishing county symbol

Where are Orange County’s remaining orange groves?

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