William Saunders

Navel Oranges

December 7, 1822
Today is the birthday of the English-American botanist, nurseryman, landscape gardener, and landscape designer William Saunders.
William served as the first horticulturist and superintendent of the experimental gardens at the newly created U.S. Department of Agriculture.
During his professional career, William enjoyed many successes, but two stand out above the rest.
First, William designed the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg. On November 17, 1863, William visited the White House to show President Abraham Lincoln his design for the cemetery near the Gettysburg battlefield. William thoughtfully made sure that the Union army dead would be organized by state. A devoted botanist, William’s design was the setting for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, an ode to the fallen soldiers interred there.
William’s second major accomplishment was introducing the seedless Navel Orange to California. After William had received cuttings from a navel orange tree in Bahia Brazil, he forwarded the cuttings to a friend named Eliza Tibbetts, who had recently settled in a town called Riverside, fifty-five miles east of Los Angeles. Eliza and her husband, Luther, planted the navel oranges in their front yard. They watered the trees with dishwater, and both of the trees flourished.
In California, navel oranges are picked from October through the end of May. Navel oranges are known for their sweetness and the sweet little navel on the blossom end. A ripe navel orange should have thin, smooth skin with no soft spots. The orange should feel firm, and the riper the orange, the heavier it should feel. The sweetest time to eat navel oranges is after Thanksgiving; that’s when their flavor and color are at their peak.
Because navel oranges are seedless, they can only be propagated by cutting. Over the years, Eliza and her husband took so many cuttings of the original two trees that they nearly killed them. In the early 1880s, they sold enough cuttings at a dollar apiece to make over $20,000 a year - that’s over half a million dollars by today’s standards.
Ironically, in the 1930s, Brazil’s entire navel orange crop was destroyed by disease. In response, the USDA sent cuttings of Tibbett’s navel oranges to restart Brazil’s navel orange orchards. Today, every navel orange grown in the world is descended from the cuttings William Saunders sent Eliza Tibbetts.
Today, one of the Tibbett’s navel orange trees still stands on the corner of Magnolia and Arlington avenues in Riverside. The tree has been a protected California Historic Landmark since 1932.

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William Saunders
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  1. Wayne Connelly on July 21, 2022 at 2:23 pm

    Great article on Saunders. Much appreciated. I work at USDA in Washington, DC, and enjoy learning more about the department’s past, including the origins of the department (from the Patent Office) and the actual building of the department (the only Dept situated on the Mall here in DC.) Curious if there are pictures available of the orange trees in Riverside. I’m looking for the department’s first bulletin, a pamphlet by Saunders, about the Experimental Garden. Thanks again. -w

    • The Daily Gardener on October 4, 2023 at 9:35 pm

      Hi Wayne.
      Thanks for your insightful comment. I appreciate you taking the time to write. Let me know if you ever find that pamphlet. That would be a great find.

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