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Everything You Should Know About the Washington Navel Orange Tree

The Washington navel orange tree is one of the most popular citrus trees to grow in the world, and is the most beloved orange tree for backyard growers. This tree is easy to grow and requires less care than other orange trees. Moreover, the Washington navel orange tree also outperforms most other citrus trees, so what’s not to love?

Let’s dive in and learn all about the amazing Washington navel orange tree!

Washington Navel Orange Tree

History of the Washington Navel Orange Tree

When you think of an orange and picture one in your mind, you’re probably thinking of the Washington navel orange without even knowing it. Ironically, however, this beloved citrus tree isn’t originally from Washington at all. In fact, the Washington navel orange tree was first imported to the United States from the Brazilian city of Bahia in 1870. For this reason, it’s sometimes called the “Bahia.”

Most experts believe that the Washington navel orange tree came from a bud sport that was found in the early 1800s in a Selecta orange tree grown by missionaries. When the Washington orange tree arrived at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., scientists propagated it, and trees were sent to Florida and California.

The trees that went to Florida failed to flourish, but the ones that made it to a woman named Eliza Tibbets in Riverside, California thrived in the ideal climate there. 

Here’s another super cool fun fact about these legendary orange trees: the Washington navel orange tree doesn’t have seeds, so it can’t be grown from seed. Washington navel oranges have to be cultivated through grafting to seedling rootstocks or budding. Because of this, almost all of the Washington orange trees grown in California originate from the first two trees that were sent to Eliza Tibbetts.

One of the original trees of Mr. Tibbetts is still alive and that tree is an official registered historical monument in Riverside. 

Washington Navel Oranges and Tree Characteristics

Most navel orange trees aren’t extremely vigorous trees, and the Washington navel orange tree is no exception to that rule. Their canopies are round and drooping and the tree grows to a moderate size when mature.

The large round oranges this tree produces have a pebbled orange rind that peels easily. The navel, which is actually a small secondary fruit, will occasionally protrude from the fruit’s apex.

Washington navel oranges ripen in the late fall and early winter, but these oranges will hold well on the tree for up to three months after maturing with no sacrifice of their integrity or quality. They store very well, too.

The Washington navel orange tree has fragrant and sweet-smelling white flowers. The foliage on this tree is evergreen.

Planting Zones

The Washington navel orange tree grows well in USDA Hardiness Zones eight through 10, although some experts argue that it does well in zone 11 as well. However, it should be noted that this tree didn’t thrive in Florida because it’s not well adapted to semitropical hot climates. So the fruit that the Washington orange tree produces when grown in Zone 11 tends to be sub-par.

If you’re going to grow your Washington navel orange tree in a container, you can extend the available growing zones for this tree down to zone four.

Washington Navel Oranges on a Tree

Size and Spacing

A full-sized Washington navel orange tree will grow to be between seven and 15 feet tall. The width of a mature tree is between eight and 12 feet. The dwarf variety of the Washington navel orange tree reaches a height of between three and six feet tall.

Pollination

The Washington navel orange tree doesn’t require a pollinator. Note that the flowers on the Washington navel orange tree lack viable pollen, so they will not serve for pollinating other citrus trees, either. Since they lack viable ovules and functional pollen, this citrus tree produces fruits that are seedless.

Tree Care

The Washington navel orange tree is delightfully easy to grow. This tree needs fertile, well-drained soil to thrive. If you grow the tree in cooler climates, you will have to move it indoors when it gets cold.

Sunlight

Like most orange trees, the Washington navel orange tree thrives in full sun. Your tree needs between eight and 12 hours of sunlight every day.

If you grow your Washington navel orange tree inside, place it beside a south-facing window. Moreover, the area needs to have good airflow. In darker winter months, you can also supplement your tree’s sunlight with grow lights.

Watering

If you plant your tree in a container, it will need to be watered more frequently than if you plant it outside in the ground. This tree enjoys low to moderate moisture. However, don’t allow the soil to become soggy. To test the dryness, check the top two to three inches of soil. If your soil is dry to that depth, the tree needs water. 

Oranges stacked into a pyramid on a wooden table.

Pruning

To encourage better fruit production and outward growth, the Washington orange tree needs regular pruning. To prune your tree, cut off the dead, broken, and diseased branches as they develop. 

You should also eliminate any crossing or rubbing branches. Doing this will encourage the outward growth habit that is ideal for this tree and allow the sunlight to reach every branch. Find a more detailed guide to pruning an orange tree here!

Eating the Washington Orange Tree

The Washington orange tree produces a sweet fruit that’s juicier and sweeter than many other oranges, with a definite citrus taste. 

You can use Washington oranges in any recipe that calls for oranges. Its zest is also delicious! Because these oranges are seedless and so naturally sweet, they’re perfect for eating out of hand, making fresh-squeezed juice, or adding to recipes and salads.

You can also make preserved recipes such as Orange Marmalade to bring a taste of sunshine into your breakfast all year long. Marmalade in tiny jelly jars also makes beautiful gifts.

Here are some other fun recipes that call for ranges:

Orange Tart

Preserving Oranges

As far as preserving these oranges, it’s nearly impossible to list all the possible ways you can go about this. If you’re blessed with a bumper harvest, you can find scores of ideas online for canning, freezing, and even drying your excess fruit.

Canning oranges has always been a particularly popular way to preserve this juicy and delicious fruit. Once your oranges are “put by,” you can use them in fruit salads or recipes all year long. They’re also beautiful in canning jars — canned either in segments or whole — and make warm holiday gifts.

One recipe I’ve found that looks amazing is Sunny Southern Preserved Oranges.

Dried orange slices are gorgeous and fragrant in potpourri. You can also use them as decoration. For enjoying this delicious concentrated flavor, put dried slices into a pitcher of iced tea or homemade lemonade. The effect will be as beautiful as it is delicious. 

Did you know that you can also pop a whole orange into the freezer? This allows you to pull one out to make freshly squeezed orange juice year-round. One of our favorite tips for freezing oranges is to juice them and freeze the juice in ice cube trays. Once your little orange juice cubes are frozen, pop the juice cubes into a large freezer bag. You can later thaw them for a glass of fresh juice or to use them in recipes.

Preserving Orange Zest

One of the most popular ways to preserve every part of the orange is to dry or freeze the zest for future use. Follow these steps for the best results:

  1. Zest your Washington oranges and place the zest in a thin layer on a baking tray. Be sure to avoid getting the white pith into your zest because it will give it a bitter taste. 
  2. Bake your zest for 30 minutes to one hour at 170 degrees Fahrenheit.
  3. Store in a cool, dark place in an airtight container. 

Another option is to simply let your zest air-dry naturally. Follow all the instructions above and skip the oven part. Your zest should be dry in a couple of days. 

Your zest will stay flavorful for up to a year, and is sublime in fruit bread and quick breads. 

Health Benefits of Washington Navel Oranges

The health benefits of oranges have been well documented by numerous scientific and nutritional studies. Half of a large orange has only about 47 calories, and this nutrient-dense fruit packs a powerful nutritional punch that’s chock-full of vitamin C, folate, potassium fiber, thiamine, and rich antioxidants.

In addition to the vitamins listed, oranges also have phenolic compounds such as flavonoids, which include hesperidin and anthocyanins.

Plus, oranges get their rich color from carotenoids, and our bodies convert these to the antioxidants lycopene and beta-cryptoxanthin. 

Orange juice. a white flower, and an orange.

Where To Buy Washington Navel Oranges and Trees?

You can buy Washington navel orange trees online, but be quick, before they sell out!

You can find Washington navel oranges and other varieties of navel oranges in grocery stores, organic markets, and fruit stands. These oranges are in season from autumn through spring. 

Wrapping up the Washington Navel Orange Tree

It’s nearly impossible to go wrong with the Washington navel orange tree. From its interesting history, easy maintenance, great taste, and versatility in any recipe that calls for citrus, the Washington navel orange has it all!

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

James Gale

Sunday 28th of August 2022

What tree stock is the Washington naval orange grafted to?

Matt

Saturday 3rd of September 2022

It depends on the nursery, it's not just one rootstock per scion variety.

enid.grant

Friday 4th of February 2022

when to fertilize this orange tree

Matt

Saturday 5th of February 2022

This site has some great info regarding timing of fertilization: https://homeguides.sfgate.com/water-fertilize-orange-trees-43844.html