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Arizona Experience Store

Citrus

Oranges, Lemons, and Grapefruit

The faint fragrance of citrus blossoms is a common and beloved scent throughout Arizona’s warmer regions. Citrus groves in the warm climates of Yuma, Mohave, Maricopa, and Pinal counties produce commercial crops of lemons, tangerines, oranges, and grapefruit, while individual trees are a yard or garden staple.

Arizona is one of only four citrus-producing states in the nation. (Texas, Florida, and southern California are the others.) Highly frost sensitive, citrus trees need balmy weather. Exposure to just one night of below-freezing temperatures can ruin a crop, and sustained low temperatures will kill a tree. Arizona's climate  makes it possible to cultivate these popular fruits.

Today Arizona is second only to California in lemon production. In 2000, we supplied 13% of the nation’s tangerines (third in the U.S.), and remain the fourth largest producer of both oranges and grapefruit. Yuma County is now the largest citrus growing region in the state. In the Valley of Maricopa County, overall citrus acreage is shrinking. However, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation Indian Tribe is becoming a major citrus producer, growing 325 acres of lemons, grapefruit, tangelos, tangerines and Navel oranges.

Lemons are the most frost-sensitive type of citrus. Lemons also like well-drained soil, which helps protect the roots from fungus and disease. No wonder 95% of the nation’s entire lemon crop comes from Arizona and California!

A History of Citrus in Arizona

Grapefruit orchard near Orangewood, Arizona in the Salt River Valley.Arizona canal with citrus orchards, facing north with Camelback Mountain in the background.

One of Arizona’s historic Five Cs, citrus production grew from several factors. One factor is Jack Swilling and the reconstruction of Hohokam Canals during the 1860s. His Salt River irrigation systems produced crops for miners and cavalrymen, and soon many other enterprises were digging channels. Among the largest of the modern canals is the Arizona Canal, built between 1883-1885 by William J. Murphy to redirect flow from the Salt River.

In 1889, four years after the canal was completed, Murphy planted an experimental citrus grove in Ingelside. He grew over 1,800 orange trees and other fruit trees from southern California. Lemons and other citrus fruit were in high demand in the west by miners wishing to combat scurvy. Arizona’s citrus products ripened before California’s fruits, so they were the first available to buyers hungry for the sunny flavors of citrus-- to a huge economic advantage.

This 1912 postcard displays the orange groves of Yuma.

Groves in Yuma and Mesa quickly followed the first orchards, and by the mid 1890s over 1,500 acres grew oranges and other citrus fruit. In 1928, producers formed the Arizona Citrus Growers Association, which helped lower the high cost of transportation. Production began a steady forty year climb, peaking around 1970, with 80,000 acres in production. Then heavy urban development slashed citrus farming. Groves turned to strip malls and housing developments.

Today, citrus is grown on only about 20,000 acres across the state. Farmers face a never ending fight against pests, the rising costs of packaging and transportation, and other challenges. Every year more groves are lost to urban development or repurposed to farm cotton or other crops. However, citrus fruits remain a significant state agricultural product, not to mention favorites in the yard and garden.

Information from the National Information System Regional IPM enters, the Agricultural Marketing Research Center, and the Arizona Cooperative Extension.

Fun Fruit Facts

Tangerines

Citrus trees are evergreens! Their leaves stay green all year long. Some varieties bud and produce fruit all year long, though some seasons are more productive than others. Peak season is November through January.

Citrus fruits can be left on the tree without becoming overripe. However, citrus does not continue to ripen after it is picked.

Almost all varieties of citrus originated in Asia, usually in the area of southern China and northern India.

New citrus trees are not grown from seed. Commercial growers propagate trees by grafting to ensure uniform, high quality fruit. A single bud is cut from a desirable tree and inserted into the bark of a strong seedling with hardy roots. The single bud becomes part of the tree and produces more buds, and more tasty fruit.

Home Cultivation Tips

In the warm parts of Arizona, it’s easy and fun to grow citrus at home. Citrus trees stay green year around, making a beautiful yard or garden addition. They also produce abundant fruit and that sweet and tangy fragrance. Once a tree is established, it will produce for years with only a minimum of care if a few simple guidelines are followed.

  • Only grow outdoor citrus in a frost-free area. Some citrus can be grown in a pot that is taken indoors for the winter.
  • Citrus can be planted year round, but the best the best months are March, April, and October.
  • Citrus should be fertilized in February, May, and early October.
  • Do not fertilize after October. It encourages the tree to start new tender growth during the winter when there is danger of frost.
  • Citrus tree trunks will sunburn, so leave the low-growing leaves or paint the trunks white to help reflect sun.
  • Citrus trees do best if they are heavily watered, and then given time to dry out between drenchings. A good schedule is usually watering every one to two weeks in summer, and every three to four weeks in winter. Do not water your tree for a few minutes every day.
  • Find the perfect citrus tree during the Arizona Cooperative Extension citrus day citrus day held once every spring. Growers from all over the state bring fruit to sample, so you can learn the difference between 30 different varieties grown in Arizona.

Cultivation information from http://www.azcitrus.com/.

Lemons