With new park, Tustin offers lemon aid

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When handed lemons, people are usually admonished to make lemonade.

The city of Tustin made a park.

Orange and lemon trees once carpeted Orange County the way subdivisions do today. In 1929, for instance, The Times reported Tustin’s record annual crop down to the box: 340,928, to be exact.

“With the orange season at its height and the lemon season drawing to a close, reports from the four packing houses in the Tustin district this week show that growers are receiving high returns,” one story read. “Although the fruit is of a smaller average size this year than last, it is being received with open arms in foreign markets.”

The last lemon grove in Tustin can be found at Jamboree Road and Portola Parkway. In recent years, the nearly 1,000 gnarly trees on a dusty hill behind a fence were a tantalizing mystery to many who live in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Meyer lemons bloomed, ripened and dropped to the ground -- ignored. Again and again, the grove produced, as if mocking the citrus industry’s obsolescence in modern Southern California.

Some wondered: Who owns that land? Why doesn’t the city turn that into a park?

Well, now it has.

Citrus Ranch Park will open to the public in early February after more than a year of work and the expenditure of $4.8 million.

“When we got the community together . . . they wanted to maintain the groves,” said David Wilson, the city’s parks and recreation director. “They wanted to preserve some of the agricultural heritage of the community. This little piece of land helps us to pay tribute to that.”

The land was once part of a grapefruit orchard on the Irvine Ranch and was given to the city in the 1980s as part of the deal to develop the sprawling Tustin Ranch community. Lemon branches were grafted onto the grapefruit trees in the 1990s, and for a time a local farmer maintained the grove in exchange for its harvest.

The eight acres of trees, which cover half of the park, can produce up to 9,600 boxes of lemons a year. That’s a lot of lemons hitting the ground. City officials, considering how to make lemonade out of the situation, say a public Lemon Festival may be needed to handle it all.

This is no utilitarian sports park, no anonymous strip of grass slipped under some power lines.

Aside from the requisite playground, the main draw of Citrus Ranch Park can be found at the top of its tree-covered hill.

With sweeping views of Santa Catalina Island, Mt. Baldy and the Santa Ana Mountains, the park is an homage to a time when the Tustin Hills Citrus Assn. boasted 200 members, Orange County’s produce was shipped around the world and the lush, surrounding foothills made one think of Tuscany, not Target.