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The Hardy Cara Cara Orange Tree

The Cara Cara Orange Tree is anything but an ordinary orange tree. Its pink fruit is tasty and packed with nutrients, and the tree is hardy in places where orange trees usually don’t grow (but not in truly cold-winter climates).

Cara Cara Orange Tree

Cara Cara oranges can ripen to a beautiful orange and then turn green again, but there’s a simple way to tell whether a Cara Cara orange is ready to eat: It is heavy with delicious juice.

History of the Cara Cara Orange Tree

Cara Cara oranges exist as the result of a mutation of the Navel Orange. Actually, Navel Oranges came into being as the result of a mutation, too.

Navel Orange trees have been in existence since 1820 when they first appeared in Brazil. The Navel Orange bears a seedless orange. Instead of seeds, it has a secondary fruit underneath a “navel” at the end of the fruit. Since Navel Orange trees don’t make seeds, they can only be reproduced by grafting a branch of an existing Navel Orange tree onto another kind of citrus rootstock. Every Navel Orange Tree in the world was a clone of the original Navel Orange tree discovered in Brazil, that is, until 1976.

One day in 1976, an orchard worker at a grove about 100 miles southwest noticed that one branch of a Navel Orange Tree was bearing smaller fruit than the others. He cut one of the oranges open and was astonished at what he saw.

This orchard worker had found another mutation. Instead of bearing fruit with orange flesh, it spontaneously started bearing fruit with pink flesh like a grapefruit. The flavor of this new orange, however, was nothing like that of a grapefruit. It is deliciously sweet and juicy. This mutation was discovered on the Hacienda Cara Cara, so the tree came to be known as the Cara Cara Orange.

There weren’t enough Cara Cara Orange trees in existence in the world to support a consumer market until the 1980s, although they became popular in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, just as fast as the Hacienda Cara Cara could produce them. Budwood was sent to Florida in 1987 and the tree arrived in California two years later. Cara Cara oranges began appearing in US specialty markets around 1990, and the San Jose Mercury News reports that production of Cara Cara oranges in California has doubled over the last 10 years. They are now common enough to appear in limited quantities for several months every year. 

Fortunately, the Cara Cara Orange is perfect for home growers.

Before we go any further, we want to clear up a common misconception about the Cara Cara Orange Tree. This tree is often described as a “cross” between the Washington Navel and a Brazilian orange known as the Bahia Navel Orange Tree. Actually, it’s not. Washington Navel Orange Trees and Bahia Navel Orange Trees are the same tree, and because neither produces seeds, they cannot be crossed.

The Cara Cara Orange Tree is a mutant of a mutant but in a good way. Just as every Washington Navel Orange tree in the world is a clone of the original Washington Navel Orange Tree, which was just a renamed Bahia Navel Orange Tree, every Cara Cara Orange Tree in the world is a clone of the original Cara Cara Orange tree.

Cara Cara Orange Tree Fruit Characteristics

Cara Cara oranges have orange peels like other oranges, except they will go back to green if they are stored in a warm place after picking. This usually isn’t a problem, because they are extremely sweet with a cranberry-like aftertaste. They are less acidic than other oranges, and they have enticing floral aromas in the juice and fruit.

Cara Cara oranges have so many nutritional advantages over other oranges that we will discuss them in a separate section. First, we will give you some essential information about how to grow your own Cara Cara Orange tree.

Cara Cara Orange Tree Planting Zones

In 2021, a few home growers of Cara Cara Orange trees in Austin, Texas were astonished when their plants survived five days and nights below freezing, with some temperatures around 0° and 8 inches of snow that lasted a week. These plants survived above the graft line and will continue to bear Cara Cara oranges when they recover.

Our advice to you, however, would be “do not try this at home.” It’s possible that these trees survived because they are a mutation of a mutation (in which case, there will be another variety of Navel Orange Tree out in a few years). Most home growers have success with Cara Cara Orange trees in the U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zones 8 through 11. Zones 12 and 13 are “too tropical” for Cara Cara production, and Zones 7 and colder require growing the tree under glass. But any home grower anywhere can grow a Cara Cara Orange Tree indoors with the right preparation.

See our other post about the Bitter Orange Tree.

Cara Cara Orange Tree Size and Spacing

If you are growing a Cara Cara Orange Tree outdoors, you need to give it enough room to grow 20 feet tall and about 10 feet wide, with 5 feet on every side away from other trees. Don’t plant a Cara Cara Orange tree closer than 10 feet to a patio or the foundation of your house, a driveway, septic tank lines, or a swimming pool.

The ideal way for homeowners to grow Cara Cara Orange trees is in 40- to 50-gallon clay containers. You will want to keep your Cara Cara Orange tree pruned so it is no more than 5 feet tall in its container. You will also want to prune the lateral growth of the tree so it does not extend more than 36 inches out from the trunk.

Cara Cara Orange Tree Pollination

Cara Cara Orange trees are self-pollinating. You do not need another orange tree in close proximity for good production of fruit. Brushing pollen from one flower to another will help your tree set more fruit.

Cara Cara Orange Tree Care

Soil

Cara Cara Orange trees prefer well-drained, loamy soil that is at least 4 feet deep. If you plant your Cara Cara Orange tree in a rocky location where it has a “bowl” of soil maybe just a few feet wide, it is best to treat it as if it were a container plant.

If you are growing a Cara Cara Orange tree in a container, it will need a very specific soil mix. Equal parts of sphagnum moss, perlite, vermiculite, and coconut fiber work best. Do not use dirt you dig up in the yard for growing a container plant. 

Fertilization

Cara Cara Orange trees benefit from two to four feedings a year with a commercial “citrus fertilizer.” Citrus fertilizer will include the phosphorus needed for good fruiting. If you are doing just two feedings a year, time them just before the main flowering in early winter and just after picking the last fruit in early summer.

All citrus plants benefit from trace minerals. Bone meal, or, if you are vegan, crushed phosphate rock, provide both phosphorus and trace nutrients. So does seaweed spray.

You will get more fruit and better fruit if you pay attention to giving your Cara Cara Orange tree iron, boron, copper, zinc, manganese, magnesium, and zinc. You don’t need to buy these nutrients individually. Well-balanced commercial fertilizers and seaweed sprays you can get from your garden center will have them. Use as directed.

Sunlight

Like all other citrus trees, Cara Cara Orange trees prefer full sunlight. They will still bear fruit, just not as much, if they get six hours of sunlight every day. Morning sun helps reduce fungal and bacterial diseases. When you have your container-grown Cara Cara Orange tree indoors, make sure it gets at least six hours of sun every day. If that’s not possible, use a grow lamp for up to 12 hours a day, giving your tree a dark period every night.

Watering

Cara Cara Orange Trees grown outdoors need soil that is moist but never soggy. The best way to maintain them in the summer is to give them a deep watering, wetting the soil to a depth of about 36″ once a week, rather than watering every day. Deep watering encourages the tree to grow roots deep into the soil, giving it more resistance to water stress, more access to soil nutrients, and deeper roots that keep it steady in the wind. Never let your Cara Cara Orange tree stand in water.

Container-grown Cara Cara Orange trees also need their potting mix to be constantly moist but never soggy. If you paid close attention to how you made the potting soil mix when you planted the tree, then thorough watering once a week should be enough. Don’t overwater.

Pruning

Pruning keeps the growth of your Cara Cara Orange tree above the ground in balance with the growth of your Cara Cara Orange tree below the ground. Sometimes Cara Cara Orange trees outgrow their root systems. When this happens, you may see green stems with no leaves or green stems with just one or two leaves at the end. Cut these off with clippers or pruning shears you have disinfected with bleach before use. You can also remove woody branches that don’t have leaves.

Unlike Apple or Peach trees, orange trees are always pruned flush with the stem. Don’t leave any stem hanging off the trunk. This way the main stem will grow over the wound, forming a “Band-Aid” of bark.

When you are topping your tree (which is something you only do once, shortly after you plant your tree), be sure to make your cuts at an angle. This allows water to roll off the cut. Bacteria and fungi can grow in water that pools on top of a horizontal cut.

Uses for Cara Cara Oranges

Cara cara oranges and the process of making orange juice.

Cara Cara oranges are delicious eaten out of hand. They make a tart but sweet orange-pink fruit juice with notes of roses and berries. Your unique growing conditions may give home-grown Cara Cara oranges a taste that you cannot find in the fruit of any other tree. Cara Cara orange zest has floral notes not found in other oranges.

In cooking, Cara Cara oranges are tangy but mellow. They make a great addition to salads. They are an interesting flavor in rice dishes. They make a unique Southern ambrosia salad or a tart and sweet orange sherbet. But most of the time you will eat your Cara Cara oranges before you have time to experiment with them in recipes.

Cara Cara Orange Nutritional Characteristics

Cara Cara oranges have just 80 calories, with 19 grams of carbohydrate and 3 grams of fiber. They have 20% more vitamin C and 30% more vitamin A than other oranges. But that’s just the beginning of the nutritional benefits of Cara Cara oranges:

  • Cara Cara oranges are also an excellent source of lycopene, zeaxanthin, alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and gamma-carotene. Chinese scientists have identified 19 different phytonutrients in Cara Cara oranges.
  • Cara Cara orange juice isn’t just rich in antioxidants, it activates processes by which the body produces its own antioxidants, scientists say. Working together, these antioxidants counteract amyloid plaque in the brain, associated with Alzheimer’s.
  • Brazilian scientists have learned that Cara Cara orange juice doesn’t just provide you with nutrients, it provides more nutrition for the probiotic bacteria that live in your gut than other kinds of orange juice.
  • Kids love Cara Cara orange juice. California researchers have confirmed that children prefer Cara Cara OJ because it is unusually resistant to forming the bitter compounds found in other kinds of orange juice.

Where Can I Buy Cara Cara Oranges?

You can find Cara Cara oranges in most larger supermarkets from December to early May.

Where Can I Buy Cara Cara Orange Trees?

Whether you are buying one tree for your patio or 1,000 trees for your orchard operation,  Nature Hills Nursery has the plants and the plant expertise you need.

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