Old Mother Orange

Cloning will save genetic heritage of Northern California’s most famous orange tree

Citrus experts from Southern California marvel over the Mother Orange during a visit in 1953. The commemorative monument with plaque to the left of the tree briefly notes the history and significance of the tree.

Citrus experts from Southern California marvel over the Mother Orange during a visit in 1953. The commemorative monument with plaque to the left of the tree briefly notes the history and significance of the tree.

Courtesy Of University of California Cooperative Extension office

Propagation experts at the University of California, Riverside, have successfully cloned Butte County’s famed Mother Orange Tree, the oldest orange tree in California, and three of the four clones will arrive here for planting this month or in early June.

That’s the word from Joe Connell, University of California Cooperative Extension farm adviser based in Oroville, who thought it wise to clone the 150-year-old agricultural treasure, the parent of the Northern California citrus industry, “because the old tree is in rough shape, and we might lose it.”

While countless new trees have grown from its seeds, such trees represent a genetically segregated group in which each is different from the others, just as children are different from their parents. Only through the propagation process, Connell explained, can a bud be grafted onto a common citrus root (root stock) and produce a clone. The three seedlings—a fourth will remain in the university’s giant clone collection—will thus preserve the budline of the Mother Orange.

“I’m not sure yet where we will plant them [the potted seedlings], but you can bet we will find a home for them once they are here,” Connell said. One might be planted at the state Parks and Recreation headquarters in Oroville, where the famed tree has stood since it was moved in 1964 to escape the rising waters behind newly constructed Oroville Dam, he said.

The aged Mediterranean sweet seedling variety tree has survived fire as well as the deep freezes of 1933, 1972, and 1990, the last being especially tough on it. Mike Lewis, a landscape technician for the state Parks and Recreation headquarters in Oroville and the custodian of the tree, revealed that the Mother Orange has been barren since a lesser but nonetheless severe frost hit in 1998.

The Mother Orange Tree—or what is left of it—as it appears today inside its locked, protective wire enclosure. New growth this spring now covers most of the hollowed trunk that has weakened the tree. With the popularity of the annual Bidwell Bar Days at the bridge (the first Saturday of May), there was talk some years ago of moving the tree so it would once again stand near the bridge, but experts decided another relocation might prove fatal.

Photo By Tom Angel

“It still has the ability to produce fruit, but it will take a couple more years. It is coming back quite well. If there’s no damaging frost in the next two or three years, I’m pretty sure the fruit will be back,” Lewis said.

Connell said the several green shoots that have appeared are promising, but he added, “The tree must grow a canopy before it will bear.” He explained that the deep freezes have allowed decay fungus to enter the trunk and hollow it out. Yet if the tree eventually does produce one or more oranges, there is no reason why the fruit should not be edible, the farm adviser said.

Historically, the story of the Mother Orange is intertwined with that of Bidwell Bar, the first county seat, and its river bridge. Originally called Bidwell’s Bar, the town was named after John Bidwell, Chico’s founding father and the man who began mining a gold-rich sandbar on the middle fork of the Feather River in 1848. A trading post sprang up to supply him and the other miners who quickly flocked to the spot.

When the first county election was held in 1850, the gold rush settlement was chosen as the county seat. Butte County Judge Joseph Lewis, a Virginian who arrived in 1849, and several other prominent citizens then responded to agitation by the 1,200 residents of the town for a bridge to replace the ferry used to cross the river.

Lewis put up most of the $35,000 needed, and a 245-foot steel suspension bridge with towers—370 feet overall—was ordered from an iron works in New York. It arrived in San Francisco for an inland trip by riverboat and wagons after being transported around Cape Horn by clipper ship. It instantly gained fame as the first steel suspension bridge west of the Mississippi River and is today a national civil-engineering landmark.

The tollhouse manager charged 25 cents for a horse and rider and 10 cents for foot traffic. Ironically, the population of Bidwell Bar began to decline in 1856, the year the bridge was completed, because miners discovered rich gold deposits in Oroville.

The Mother Orange being deep-boxed for its move to its present location in 1964. A part of the Bidwell Bar Bridge can be seen in the right side of the picture. The men visible in the background under foliage appear dwarfed by the tree. Note oranges growing on the tree, which mature from February through May. The tree needed pruning from 33 feet in height to 20 feet so it could pass under de-energized power lines.

Judge Lewis was one of the original inhabitants of Bidwell Bar who continued to live there. In 1856 he happened to visit Sacramento at the same time a traveler from Mazatlán, Mexico, offered for sale a 2-to-3-year-old orange tree in a tub. The fruit represented a novelty to the Northern California folks of that time, so Judge Lewis bought the seedling for planting at the western approach to the just-completed Bidwell Bar Bridge.

That seedling became the Mother Orange. On average, it yielded about 600 pounds of oranges that ripened between February and May each year. In its prime its measurements were: 33.5 feet in height, 8.5 feet in trunk circumference three feet above ground, and 3l.5 feet in canopy spread.

The tree quickly became a popular attraction for early-day miners. Indeed, in its unique position it was as much a pioneer in the rugged land as the fortune seekers who picked its oranges, ate them, and then often planted the seeds in the dooryards of their dwellings in the hills. Although neglected, many of the trees lived on near the crumbling ruins of miners’ cabins, dotting the landscape with the only markings of the long-ago gold chase.

The flooding Middle Fork of the Feather River posed a threat in the winter of 1862, rising so high that the Mother Orange stood in imminent danger of being washed away. Isaac Ketchum, who acted as bridge tender from 1859 until his death in 1905, moved the tree to a higher location at the other end of the bridge. It stayed there until rangers using two 60-ton construction cranes and a house-moving trailer relocated it in 1964 to the state Park and Recreation headquarters grounds in Oroville to avoid the rising waters behind the new Oroville Dam. The bridge also moved in 1964 but to the end of the parking lot at the Bidwell Canyon boat launch ramp.

In a wanton act of vandalism probably carried out in the early 1900s, a pile of hay was stacked against the tree and set afire. The blaze did not kill the tree, but the inside surfaces of its trunk to this day bear charcoal remains from the heat. When Jerry Olrich, the state gardener at the Sacramento Capitol grounds, contracted to move the tree to its present location in 1964, he discovered heart rot, which he treated so the tree would live on.

The reputation of the tree as Mother Orange arises from the fact that the street and yard trees of Oroville, Chico—the big orange tree relocated last March from near the entrance to the Senator Theatre on Chico’s Main Street is a Mother Orange “child"—and other county locations grew from its seeds, thus proving that the citrus industry could move this far north. It encouraged many people to begin orange culture in the regions near Oroville. Indeed, people traveled for its seeds and seedlings to plant far and wide over the north state, and no other living citrus tree is so ingrained in state history. During the Orange and Olive Exposition in Oroville on Nov. 27, 1926, a ceremony was held at the tree and a plaque monument erected in its honor.

While the first Oroville area groves were sweet seedling offspring of the Mother Orange, the naval variety—first planted in Butte County in 1880—gradually took over as the fruit of choice in new groves, as gold in the trees, so to speak, replaced gold in the ground. By 1888, growers had planted more than 100,000 naval oranges trees, and by 1901 farmers in the Oroville, Palermo, and Thermalito area tended 5,000 acres.

Navel oranges are a better-quality fresh fruit that also are larger, easier to peel, and seedless, Connell explained. Also, they come to market in the dark, colder months beginning in late November.

The historical perspectives reflected here come primarily from the book History of Butte County, by the late Joseph McGie, a former Butte County education official; Herbert J. Webber in his 1927 Sunset Magazine article titled “California’s Oldest Orange Tree"; and materials from the Visitors’ Center at Oroville Dam.