The California navel orange began with intrepid Eliza Tibbets

A colander of navel oranges from a backyard tree.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Southern California has certainly seen its share of oddball dreamers. But few can top Eliza Tibbets, the queen of the navel orange.

As detailed in David Boulé's remarkable book, “The Orange and the Dream of California,” Tibbets was a force of nature. She was born in 1825 in Ohio, was an ardent abolitionist who married three times, marched with Frederick Douglass and was a spiritualist — even before she moved to California.

Tibbets and her husband, Luther, came west in the 1870s with “a vision of creating a new life for themselves, along with a better world,” Boulé writes.

They certainly did both, thanks to the navel orange.


Settling in Riverside, Tibbets was researching what crops might do well in this new farming area and wrote to an old friend in the Department of Agriculture. In one of those improbable coincidences that history seems so often to turn on, that friend had been corresponding with a missionary in Brazil who had been praising a variety of orange then unknown in the U.S.

Tibbets was able to procure some cuttings — driving her wagon three days from Riverside to Los Angeles to pick them up.

When the trees began to bear fruit, it was apparent that the oranges were something wonderful (the trees were also planted in Florida but didn’t adapt nearly as well).

Because the trees can be reproduced only by cuttings, which they provided, the Tibbets became quite wealthy quite quickly. They earned a reported income of as much as $20,000 in one year — at a time when the average California worker made less than $400 a year.

Unfortunately, in another all-too-typical Southern California twist, they lost everything in the real estate crash of 1887. Despite the fact that every navel orange tree in California traces its lineage to their two originals, the Tibbets died broke.