Oranges were mentioned in Chinese literature already in 314 BC but came to Europe only in the 16th century. Still some years ago in many countries, for example in Poland they were a symbol of prosperity and something associated only with Christmas time and only if you were lucky. But then in 1987 orange trees happened to be the most cultivated fruit trees in the world.
They have come a long way first to get to Europe and then to become one of our most favorite fruit and we owe that… to the Portuguese.
When in the age of discoveries, the Portuguese went to China, they discovered the sweet orange and so the Portuguese merchants were the first ones to introduce the sweet orange to Europe. Because of that, in a few Indo-European languages, the fruit was named after them referring to something “brought from Portugal” or literally translating “portugueses”, for example in Greek the fruit is called “portokali” and “portakal” in Turkish. Albanian “portokall”, Bulgarian портокал (portokal), Macedonian “portokal”, Persian پرتقال (porteghal), and Romanian “portocală”. There is also a name “portogallo” in different dialects in southern Italy.
But the history of orange actually started in India where the majority of citrus fruits come from, in particular Himalayas where they are wild fruits. So from India orange traveled to Asia and only then to Europe thanks to the Portuguese. But the journey of the fruit’s name was a little more complicated…
The word orange derives from the Sanskrit word for “orange tree” (नारङ्ग nāraṅga). The Sanskrit word reached European languages through Persian نارنگ (nārang) and its Arabic derivative نارنج (nāranj).
One of the first countries where oranges were cultivated was France. There “narang” from Sanskrit transformed into “orange”, from Old French name “pomme d’orange” which literally means “an orange apple”. But also because of this name, in many cultures an orange is associated with a golden color, as the word “or” in French means exactly “gold”.
Then the French word “orange” entered English but in other Indo-European languages, the name of the fruit refers to its easter origins and can be literally translated as “apple from China”.
Some examples are German “Apfelsine”, Dutch “appelsien”, Swedish “apelsin”, and Norwegian “appelsin”.
When it comes to Slavic languages, however, we use “pomaranč” in Slovak, “pomeranč” in Czech, “pomaranča” in Slovene , and “pomarańcza” in Polish. All referring to Old French word “pomme d’orange” – “orange apple” where “or” refers to gold.
Beside being a delicious fruit, in Asia and Middle East orange trees are used for decorations. They are a common element of patios in arabic architecture, usually placed next to a fountain or a small lake.
Also, in many cultures, oranges have symbolical meaning and for example they are considered to be the “the apples of paradise” that grow on the biblical Tree of Life as it’s shown in many paintings.
But oranges are also present in Greek mythology, in particular in the story about the Hesperides.
In Greek mythology, the Hesperides was the collective name for the nymphs of the evening and golden light of sunset, and who were the “Daughters of the Evening” or “Nymphs of the West”. They guarded a garden in western corner of the world. As for the location, it is said that the garden was somewhere near the Atlas mountains in North Africa and south of the Iberian peninsula which nowadays could be interpreted as… Portugal.
In the Garden of the Hesperides which was Hera’s orchard in the west, there were fruit
trees that produces “golden apples” that grant immortality when eaten. The trees were planted from the fruited branches that Gaia gave to Hera as a wedding gift when Hera accepted Zeus.
In later years it was thought that the “golden apples” might have actually been oranges, a fruit unknown to Europe at that time. And also that’s why under this assumption, the Greek botanical name chosen for all citrus species was Hesperidoeidē (Ἑσπεριδοειδῆ, “hesperidoids”) and, as mentioned earlier, the Greek word for the orange fruit is “portokali” — after the country of Portugal in Iberia supposedly near where the Garden of the Hesperides grew.
They are something very obvious for the locals who don’t even see them. While us, foreigners, are absolutely amazed when we come here in November or December and we see the orange trees bloom in the middle of winter.
We pick them, take pictures, some of us take them back home as souvenirs while the Portuguese make fun of us and don’t understand our reactions.
This is probably one of those few things, that even after many years of living here, will never grow out of me. The smile, joy and weirdly heart-warming feeling that the view of orange trees in winter gives me… As for me, it will always remind me stories about my mom’s Christmas when she and probably many people her age had when they were children when oranges were Christmas gifts and it will always remind me the first time I came here in winter, still as a tourist. How exotic it was for me to see orange trees everywhere, be surrounded by them and see oranges rolling everywhere on the ground. How I picked them, took pictures and brought one home as a souvenir…