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The Trifoliate Orange

The Trifoliate Orange, also called the Bitter Orange or Hardy Orange, is a yellow, bitter fruit grown in the Southern United States. This is not your typical orange! This fruit is known for growing on architectural, thorny hedges with a taste similar to a lemon.

Closeup of three trifoliate oranges on a tree.
Trifoliate oranges.

It’s an uncommon variety, unknown to many gardeners. The fruit is cold-hardy with many medicinal benefits and uses in the kitchen. Curious to know more? Keep reading to learn more about what makes this orange so unique!

History of the Trifoliate Orange Tree

The Trifoliate Orange Tree is native to Korea and Central / Northern China. The tree was introduced to the United States in the 1850s. William Saunders – the first botanist hired by the United States Department of Agriculture after its establishment – made this tree popular in the post-Civil War era. Saunders helped introduce several other non-native plants to the United States, and he was integral in introducing many fruits and vegetables into American culture.

The thorny, hedge-like qualities of the Trifoliate Orange Tree made it popular for confining livestock and keeping unwanted animals and pests away. The tree is now naturalized in Louisiana and Arkansas, and it’s present in fifteen other southern states as well.

The dense thorny hedge formed by a trifoliate orange tree.
The thorny limbs of a trifoliate orange tree.

Characteristics of the Trifoliate Orange Tree

The Trifoliate Orange Tree is a deciduous shrub that features a smooth bark and many large, green thorns. The wood of the tree is very sturdy and dense. The branches on the tree will often stay green year-round, contrasting the usual brown winter-scape. Even though it isn’t technically evergreen, the green branches give it an evergreen appearance.

Trifoliate means “having three leaflets”, so guess how the orange tree got its name! The three-leafed foliage first appears yellowish-green following the white, fragrant blooms in spring, then turns to dark green by summertime. If crushed, the foliage has a spicy scent.

The beautiful, white blooms on the tree feature four to five papery petals. The flowers range from one to three inches in size and are very aromatic. The flower’s scent is very similar to citrus.

Closeup of a white trifoliate orange blossom,
Trifoliate orange blossom.

The shrub grows anywhere from eight to fifteen feet tall and has a similar spread. As the shrubs grow, the thorny branches inevitably tangle within each other, creating a natural barrier hedge. The thorny hedge is a great place for birds to have nests that won’t be bothered.

Once established, the tree can produce healthy fruit for around twenty-five years.

Characteristics of the Trifoliate Orange

As the Trifoliate Orange ripens, it will turn from dark green to yellow. You can expect ripe fruit by fall after the leaves fall off the tree. The oranges typically measure anywhere from one and a half to two inches, which is smaller than other citrus fruit. Imagine the size of a large lime or a golf ball! The fruit contains little pulp and many seeds with a very thick rind.

Trifoliate oranges on a tree.

What Do They Taste Like?

Hence the alternate name Bitter Orange, the Trifoliate Orange has a very acidic, sour taste. Some say it tastes more like a cross between lemon and grapefruit, rather than an orange.

How to Use the Trifoliate Orange

Despite the bitter taste, there are a few uses for this fruit! There is little flesh, or pulp, to eat, so the Trifoliate Orange is used more for its juice or skin. The juice can be used in marmalades, lemonades, and as a garnish in cocktails, while the skin can be used as a zest.

In the past, people have also candied the rinds of the orange, or you can dry the rinds to use in a potpourri mix.

Allowing the fruit to sit for two weeks after harvesting provides the maximum amount of juice (often 20% more!) to use.

Harvested trifoliate oranges at a market.

Trifoliate Orange Marmalade

One of the most popular ways to use the fruit is to make marmalade! You need around 30 to 50 oranges and several jars for the recipe. Cut each fruit in half and twist it apart. Squeeze all the juice you can into a bowl. Make sure to remove any seeds from the juice. You don’t want those in your marmalade!

Slice your orange peelings and add them to a jar containing two and a half cups of water with an eighth teaspoon of baking soda. Bring them to a boil and let simmer for ten minutes, then you want to remove about two cups of water. Add your juice and pulp in, then simmer for ten more minutes.

Put enough jars for eight cups into a pot of water, and bring to a boil. Let them boil until your marmalade is ready for canning. Measure out four cups of sugar. Take one-fourth of that sugar, and mix it in a small bowl with a package of pectin. In a large bowl, add enough water to the juice and pulp mixture to make it equal to five and a half cups, then put it into a gallon pot. Add your sugar and pectin mixture to the pot along with a half teaspoon of oil.

Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Add the remaining sugar. Boil for another minute, then put your marmalade into jars! Make sure to fill the jars within a fourth inch of the top, and wipe off any marmalade that touches the rim of the jar. Set your lid, tighten, and repeat. The sealed jars should store for several months.

Closeup of a jar of orange marmalade.

Health Benefits

The Trifoliate Orange is a nutritionally rich fruit, with benefits coming from the thorns, stems and fruit. As you may have guessed, the orange is packed with many of the health benefits that other oranges have such as Vitamin C to boost immunity. The fruit also contains phytochemicals and antioxidants like Coumarins, Flavonoids, Monoterpenes and Alkaloids that increase blood flow.

One of its more popular uses is to control allergic inflammation. In Chinese medicine, the Trifoliate Orange was used to treat toothaches (with the thorns), conjunctivitis and colds (with the stem).

Note: be careful not to consume too much of the fruit’s juice, as it is said to cause nausea and stomach pain.

A plate of trifoliate oranges cut in half.

Can You Grow the Trifoliate Orange at Home?

The Trifoliate Orange tree is hardy to negative ten degrees, so it can be easily grown in the Southern United States. It is specifically hardy in zones five through nine. The tree prefers full sun with medium-moisture, low-lime soils. It’s generally disease-free, and it’s extremely deer and rabbit resistant.

Interestingly enough, in Texas, the Trifoliate Orange Tree is resistant to many citrus tree diseases, so a lot of citrus fruit is grafted to the rootstock of this tree before it is sold. Three cultivars, namely: Barnes, Rubidoux, and Flying Dragon were developed from the tree.

Take note that this tree is considered an invasive species in many states because of its ease to germinate and naturalize, taking over woodland areas and hedgerows. Once the tree naturalizes in woodland areas, it often shades out native plants and takes over the area.

A bunch of trifoliate oranges on a tree.

Growing from Seed

You can grow the Trifoliate Orange from seed by taking seeds from ripened fruit. Luckily, the seeds germinate very easily. Start the seeds in a greenhouse or covered area in the fall and transplant them out in spring. You can also take cuttings from semi-ripe fruit and plant them out in the summertime.

This tree can take up to ten years to begin to produce fruit.

Seasonal Care

When pruned and maintained after flowering, you can enjoy the unique architecture of the tangly, thorned branches. If not pruned, the Trifoliate Orange Tree tends to grow into a tall hedge.

Besides pruning, this tree is rather low-maintenance.

Where to Purchase a Trifoliate Orange Tree

You can find seeds or small, bare-root Trifoliate Orange Trees for sale on websites like Etsy or FastGrowingTrees.com. The tree isn’t likely to be for sale in your usual garden departments and nurseries because of its specialty.

Where to Buy Trifoliate Oranges

You probably won’t find these unique fruits for sale in the produce section at the grocery store. Your best bet is to check with any local growers or online markets like Foraged.

Better yet, try your hand at growing the Trifoliate Orange Tree, and have them close by every year!

Wrapping up the Trifoliate Orange

If you are looking for a great conversation piece in your yard or want to spice up your recipes, the Trifoliate Orange Tree is a wonderful choice. The sour fruit will liven up your lemonade and provide great winter interest to your landscape.

A trifoliate orange and white blossoms on a tree branch.

Excited for more orange content? Check out our orange trees page to start learning everything there is to know about your favorite citrus!