Where Have All the Orange Groves Gone?

Where have all the flowers gone,
Long time passing,
Where have all the flowers gone,
Long time ago,

I was born in 1950 and raised in Southern California. I’d spend summers with my grandparents and aunt, 5 years my senior, even though my own family lived just a few miles away.  On weekends my grandfather would load up the family Ford station wagon and off we’d go, traveling through what was then the countryside.  My grandmother made tuna sandwiches, chocolate chip cookies, and a thermos of ice-cold lemonade from lemons that grew in their yard.  There were no fast food drive-thru eateries except a Foster’s Freeze and a Carl’s that later franchised into Carl’s Jr.  My grandparents’ house was just a few miles from the Imperial Highway which was our route and may have been part of the Sunkist Trail that ran from Arizona into California.  Like many migrants to California during the 1920s, my great-grandfather and his family came here to pick oranges. 

 It didn’t take long to leave the scenery of gas stations, liquor stores, other assorted buildings, and pedestrians.  I would catch the first scent of citrus as we approached the groves that lined the highway.  It was such a welcome scent.  As we drove, different groves would appear, orange, lemon, lime, and occasionally, grapefruit, each with its own scent.  The smell of the oranges was the most pungent and was my favorite of the fruits.  I’d ask my grandfather to stop the car, so we could get out and pick fruit, he’d always smile telling me no we can’t.   It was private property, but to me it was just open fields of fruit waiting for the picking.

Some years later, my mother purchased a house in Pomona, California, about 60 miles from Los Angeles. It was my senior year in high school; I remained in Los Angeles so I could graduate from the school I was attending.  Again, the route was Imperial Highway, however, there were not as many groves as close to the city as before.  As we drove further out the groves were still prevalent, approaching Pomona.  There were also strawberry fields.

With the building of the 60 Freeway, my route to my mother’s house in Pomona changed to the 60 Freeway as it extended from the 10 Freeway east to Pomona.  The freeway was much faster than the Imperial Highway. Some years later it went into Riverside Country, through the Inland Empire, merging back again into the 10 Freeway on to Palm Springs and beyond.   In the 1950s my great grandmother lived in Palm Springs and she had to take a train back and forth to Los Angeles for her summer vacations with our family.  Air Conditioning was not a standard and it was a must for her to come to a cooler climate.

Over the years, driving to my mother’s house, more buildings and homes encroached upon the groves.  In 1987, I moved to the Inland Empire.   I settled in a small community with little over of 80, 000 residents and one main street with the only traffic light for miles. Just a few blocks from my home were sheep herds and citrus groves.  Often, I would take my daughter for a ride to the groves where I could reminisce from the smell of the oranges, my favorite, and other citrus.  As a house-warming gift, my grandmother sent money for me to buy a lemon tree so I could make my own lemonade as I never got enough of hers.  The tree I purchased was mislabeled and was a grapefruit tree: imagine my surprise when the fruit began to grow.  The grapefruit from my tree was the sweetest I had ever eaten and could be peeled like an orange and eaten as is.   It also produced an abundance of fruit, more than I could use.  I’d freeze some of the juice and one of my brothers would come by and pick as much as he could for his family. 

California was in a drought from December 2011 to March 2019. Watering was drastically reduced, and I could be fined if I watered too much.  My grapefruit tree died, and my gardener cut it down.  This was painful because my grandmother passed away in 2006 and it was a remembrance of her.   Believe it or not, when the drought was over and we started having our rainy season, my tree grew back, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.  I don’t have fruit yet, but it is hardy, and I expect to see blossoms in the coming year. 

My little city grew, bringing with it the development of more housing tracts, apartments, schools, a community college, auto dealerships, strip malls, a major mall, and several warehouses.  The city now has reached over 250,000 and the groves are long gone, to my dismay.  There are still a few groves in Riverside County but, I fear those will go by the wayside as well.   I hope perhaps the building will stop and the remaining groves prevail.

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  1. This is a lovely story, thank you for sharing it.

    I have family in San Diego and they, too, have citrus growing in their yards. I have had the experience of going out and picking a grapefruit fresh from the tree. There is nothing like it.

    I love the message of renewal you are sharing. Thank you very much for that and very best wishes.

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