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
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.
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.
Fun Fruit Facts
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.