Citrus fruit: From ancient luxury item to today’s cash crop

The citron arrived in Rome from what is now Israel.

Citrus Fruit 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Citrus Fruit 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Although Israelis take oranges for granted and may even be reluctant to eat them because they’re too lazy to peel them, citrus fruits were the clear status symbols of the Roman ruling nobility in the ancient Mediterranean, according to Tel Aviv University researchers. Just published in HortScience, their study plots the route and evolution of the citrus trade in the ancient Mediterranean.
The study, led by archeobotanist Dr. Dafna Langgut of TAU’s Institute of Archeology and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, is based on a collection of ancient texts, art, artifacts, and archeobotanical remains such as fossilized pollen grains, charcoals, seeds and other fruit remnants.
Until the first century CE, the only citrus produce available to the Romans were the extremely rare and inordinately expensive citrons and lemons. “Today, citrus orchards are a major component of the Mediterranean landscape and one of the most important cultivated fruits in the region. But citrus is not native to the Mediterranean basin and originated in Southeast Asia,” Langgut said.
“My findings show that citrons and lemons were the first citrus fruits to arrive in the Mediterranean and were status symbols for the elite. All other citrus fruits most probably spread more than a millennium later for economic reasons.”
At first, the Romans only had access to rough-skinned citrons, also known as etrogim – mostly rind and dry, tasteless flesh. The citron arrived in Rome from what is now Israel. The earliest botanical remains of the citron were identified in a Persian royal garden near Jerusalem and dated to the 5th to 4th centuries BCE. It is presumed that it spread from there to other locations around the Mediterranean.
“The first remains of the earliest lemon, found in the Roman Forum, date to right around the time of Jesus, the end of the first century BCE and early first century CE,” said Langgut. “It appears that the citron was considered a valuable commodity due to its healing qualities, symbolic use, pleasant odor and rarity. Only the rich could have afforded it. Its spread therefore was helped more by its high social status, its significance in religion and its unique features, rather than its culinary qualities.”
According to Langgut, sour oranges, limes and pomelos were introduced to the West by Muslim traders via Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula much later, in the 10th century CE.
“It is clear that Muslim traders played a crucial role in the dispersal of cultivated citrus in Northern Africa and Southern Europe,” Langgut said. ”It’s also evident because the common names of many of the citrus types were derived from Arabic, following an earlier diversification in Southeast Asia. Muslims controlled extensive territory and commerce routes from India to the Mediterranean.”
According to the research, the sweet orange associated with Israel today dates as far back as the 15th century and was the product of a trade route established by the Genoese and, later, the Portuguese. The sticky-sweet mandarin was introduced to the Mediterranean only in the beginning of the 19th century.
“It wasn’t until the 15th century that the sweet orange arrived on European tables. By the time mandarins appeared in the 19th century, citrus fruits were considered commonplace,” said Langgut. “They were cash crops rather than luxury items.”
The researcher is currently, with the support of the Israel Science Foundation, determining which plants were grown in the gardens of Herod the Great’s palaces.