The tang of orange peel, the astringent sweetness of orange juice on the tongue instantly bring back my childhood Christmases in England. The orange placed in the toe of my stocking—in other words my father’s long and stretchy sock—was usually the last thing I took out and the first thing I ate at some ungodly hour on Christmas morning. The smells of oranges and spice also summon the weeks before the holiday when I would press cloves into oranges to make pomanders as presents for aunts. I remember thinking the resulting indentations on my thumb and forefinger would be permanent.
However, oranges in my experience came from shops. So my first Christmas celebrated in Bermuda was all the more magical when in a citrus orchard at the appropriately named Orange Grove near where Mike’s Aunt Pink lived I saw the fruits actually hanging from the tree. The lines from Marvell’s poem Bermudas became all the more meaningful to me: “He hangs in shades the orange bright, /Like golden lamps in a green night.”In January, I spent many a messy hour with Pink, peeling, seeding and slicing by hand oranges straight from the tree to make the most delicious marmalade. I didn’t realise we were doing what Bermudians had done off and on for centuries.
Oranges go back in our island’s history as far as 1616 when seeds were sent to Governor Tucker. By 1621, orange trees were so well-established Governor Butler included the fruit in his chest of provisions sent to Virginia. Oranges, along with lemons, were also used instead of money for rent as Louise Hutchings Smith in her book Bermuda’s Oldest Inhabitants reveals: “In 1634, captain Henry Woodhouse took a lease for 99 years from Sir Wm. Killigrew of six shares of land in Hambledon tribe, upon the nominal rental of 100 oranges, 100 lemons, 100 potatoes.” Whenever I drive past Warwick Academy, 1 think of another of her references to archival records. She says that in 1662, “the school lands in Warwick parish on which stands Warwick Academy were leased by Mr Hugh Wentworth for ‘100 pounds of tobacco yearly to be paid and delivered to the use of the school, and reserving 200 fairer choyce orrenges to be picked up and shipped to the company yearly by the Magazeen ship.’” I wonder, were the citrus orchards growing where the swimming pool is now?
From 1644 to 1700, oranges became a significant export to England, New York, New England and Virginia. Smith mentions that in 1850 an ancestor of the author of Bermuda Journey, who was also William and who also lived at Orange Grove, exported 20,000 oranges, all of them being grown on the property. In the early nineteenth century, an old advertisement announced that Hamilton’s postmaster, Mr W.B. Perot, had for sale several thousand oranges grown in his gardens at Par-la-Ville.
When exported, the oranges would often be packed in cedar boxes as a clever way of evading the law forbidding the export of cedar wood. The combined fragrances of orange peel and cedar wood must have been wonderfully exotic to Londoners. Talking of aromas, if the orange fruit smells tangy, the blossom smells divine. “Mention is made,” says Smith, “of two of incoming ships smelling the fragrance of the orange blossoms 30 miles out at sea.” No wonder Bermudian brides traditionally included it in their bouquets.
Oranges are highly prized for Vitamin C, as my mother would constantly tell me when she plied me with one after another. That’s why I also associate them with a bad cold and a weird taste in the mouth. And that’s why ships with scurvy-stricken sailors would dock in Bermuda to collect the juice from the Naval Hospital.
Many older Bermudians share my memories of orange orchards. Sadly, younger generations have no such memories as at the beginning of the new millennium a mite devastated numerous orange trees. This is not a new problem. In The Naturalist in Bermuda, John Jones explains, “In 1854 citrus trees were attacked by a minute insect, a species of Coccus which caused sad havoc in the orchards.” Instead of enjoying the fruit, officers stationed on the islands had walking sticks made out of the orange and lemon tree wood which they would take home as presents. And in 1918, scale insects were so destructive oranges became scarce. But in the twentieth century, fruit growers’ perseverance paid off by the end of the Second World War. There is hope oranges will make a similar comeback in the twenty-first century. According to Bermuda Green Thumb (formerly Brighton Nursery) orange trees may well become common again. They think they will be able to meet popular demand for orange trees by 2023. Let’s hope they’re right.