Not just a pretty face, Seville’s orange trees are more than just a form of natural decor for the city center.
From the intoxicating smell of the azahar, or orange blossoms, in springtime, to the practical use of the fruit in marmalade fit for a queen (literally!), the orange trees of Seville form a unique part of the city’s history.
Rooted in classical mythology
To set the scene, we need to take a peek back at classical mythology and the Roman god, Hercules, who, as legend goes, founded the city and is represented in landmarks across Seville, such as the Alameda de Hercules square and its surrounding neighborhood. Predating Seville, however, it’s said that one of the 12 labors given to Hercules by Eurystheus, king of Tiryns, was to steal Geryon of Erytheia’s livestock. Upon completing said task, Hercules decided to go to Africa to attempt to obtain the “golden apple” of immortality, rumored to actually be an orange.
This naranja amarga, or bitter orange, was later introduced to Europe by Genovese sailors, who brought it over from Asia. Rumored to bring happiness to whoever possessed it, the Moorish dynasty that reigned at the time decided to plant these bitter orange trees all over Spain, with a high concentration of them in Andalusia.
By the 12th century, everyone was a firm believer of the happiness-inducing qualities of the bitter orange. They began to plant them along the streets, and by the end of the century, even went so far as to construct the Patio de los Naranjos at the Cathedral of Seville.
Many apeeling uses
During the Middle Ages, the Moors found a number of ways to make use of their newly beloved fruit trees—from medicinal purposes to perfumes. The orange blossoms were used in oils and healing essences, and its benefits include soothing a number of skin conditions (redness, irritation, sunburns) and digestive issues (stomach spasms, ulcers, bloating), healing wounds, relaxing nerves, and promoting sleep. At this time, much like Damascus in Syria and Baghdad in Iraq, the Moors hoped they could convert Seville into a global hub for perfume, attracting visitors from near and far with the sweet scent of orange blossom.
Yet, there were only 5,000 orange trees across the city until the late 1970s, when that number jumped to over 31,000 (producing over 4 million kilos, i.e., almost 4.5 tons, of oranges). Now, the bitter oranges are used in a plethora of products, including baked goods, chocolates, jams, liqueurs, wines, and lotions—which you can sample and buy all around Seville. One of our personal favorite bitter orange byproducts is the vino de naranja, or orange wine, which is made from sweet white wine from Huelva that is mixed with the peels of Seville’s bitter oranges.
Marmalade for Her Majesty
While Seville’s bitter oranges are treasured by both its residents and visitors alike, this special fruit is also cherished by the Queen of England. Thanks to the British shipping company MacAndrews, some bitter oranges were shipped up to northern England along with iron from the Rio Tinto mines in Huelva, and the rest is history.
Now, at breakfast or at tea time, Queen Elizabeth II eats marmalade on her toast that is made from Seville’s bitter oranges—rumored to come from the Palacio de las Dueñas, the former home (now museum) of “La Cayetana,” the Duchess of Alba.
When to catch the trees at their prettiest
While the orange trees are a sight to be seen all year round, a trip anywhere from late February to early March, after the harvest, is the best time to catch a whiff of the orange blossoms in bloom. Don’t worry if you can’t plan a trip to Seville at that time, though! If there’s one thing we know to be true, it’s that, from their sheer beauty and bliss-inducing qualities to their enchanting aroma and delicious taste (but only when in something, not on their own!), Seville’s iconic bitter orange trees are here to stay.