During the cooler seasons, the Treasure Coast welcomes the arrival of citrus season when citrus groves burst into life. From November through April, the region hosts a vibrant array of oranges, grapefruits, tangerines and more. The Treasure Coast’s citrus industry, specifically the Indian River Citrus District, has a long history thanks to the region’s humidity, fertile soil and proximity to the Indian River Lagoon that help citrus trees thrive.
History of Florida Citrus
Citrus trees were introduced to the region as early as the 16th century by Spanish explorers. However, it wasn't until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that commercial citrus production in Florida started to flourish and groves of oranges and grapefruits became a staple of the economy.
According to the Indian River Citrus League, in 1807, Captain Douglas Dummitt discovered fragrant orange trees along the Florida East Coast. Settling on the north end of Merritt Island, he planted the first-known citrus grove in what is now the Indian River Citrus District, which spans a 200-mile narrow strip along Florida's east coast, from Daytona Beach to West Palm Beach.
The citrus industry has not been without challenges, though, from weather events to disease, citrus growers have faced many setbacks over the years including:
The Great Freeze: The late 19th century was a catastrophic event for Florida's citrus industry. Many groves were severely damaged, and it was a significant challenge for growers to survive and recover.
Citrus canker: A contagious disease, necessitated extreme actions such as the incineration of infected trees to halt its transmission. Such measures have historically led to a substantial decline in the citrus industry.
Hurricanes: Over the years these extreme weather events have caused losses of fruit, trees, and even groves along the river due to saltwater intrusion. Last year’s Indian River citrus crop suffered, in part, due to the catastrophic hurricane Ian.
Greening: A bacterial disease disrupting tree nutrition. Grapefruit, especially, has suffered a severe production decline due to its high susceptibility to this disease that is pervasive across the state.
According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, “Since 2005, orange production in Florida has dropped 90%. Between 2002 and 2017, the number of citrus growers in Florida decreased from 7,389 to 2,775 (a 62% decline) and the number of juice processing facilities decreased from 41 in 2003 to 14 in 2017 (a 66% decline).” In 2022-2023 California took over Florida's role as the top orange-producing state in the US.
Making a Comeback
Despite many setbacks, the Treasure Coast still produces some of the finest citrus fruits in the United States and may be rebounding from these challenges. According to Matt Joyner, CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual in an article from PBS and NPR for Southwest Florida, “The promise of a comeback for Florida's citrus industry is on the horizon for the first time in a long time,” Joyner said. “Growers continue to see improvements in the groves – tree health is improving as a result of new therapies and the size of the fruit is larger and the quality is better than we've seen in recent years.”
The United States Department of Agriculture is forecasting that Florida orange production will be up 30% from last year.
More Than Oranges
Indian River County, in particular, has gained a reputation for its premium citrus, celebrated for its exceptional blend of high sugar levels and acidity, resulting in a unique tangy flavor that has earned Indian River citrus global recognition, particularly for its unique Indian River Grapefruit which is sweeter than most, has a thin rind and less pulp than other varieties.
“The Indian River area is unique in the fact that we have high sugar with a higher acid that kind of gives it that twang. And that's proven by studies from Texas, California, South Africa, Mexico, Turkey, wherever you want to get grapefruit, Israel, around the world. The Indian River part of Florida has got the best grapefruit truly in the world, scientifically as well as psychologically.” -George Hamner Jr, President of Indian River Exchange Packers Inc., for Heritage Center and Indian River Citrus Museum
Oranges are also a top attraction, with the juicy and sweet Indian River Valencia oranges, known for producing Florida’s famous orange juice. For those who prefer a sweeter, easy-to-peel option, tangerines, tangelos and honeybells are abundant.
While citrus fruit takes center stage during citrus season, the Treasure Coast also offers citrus-inspired products. Local markets, shops, and restaurants offer a variety of citrus-delight including jams and jellies, citrus-infused dishes and desserts, marinades and dressings, along with citrus-scented candles and skincare. These items capture the spirit of the Treasure Coast, offering a piece of this vibrant region to be enjoyed by all.
Whether you're enjoying a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, savoring a tangy grapefruit, or snacking on a sweet tangerine, every mouthful of citrus carries with it the region's history, commitment to quality, and dedication to preserving its citrus legacy. Experience the zest of the Treasure Coast where the sun, soil, and tradition combine to create an unforgettable citrus experience.