For the Love of Oranges

Leanne Ogasawara


American consumers have been stocking up on staples as the coronavirus pandemic spreads, giving one struggling beverage a much-needed boost: orange juice.

U.S. retail sales of orange juice jumped about 38% in the four weeks ending on March 28 compared to the same period last year, according to Nielsen.

–CNN Business


“How did you reach adulthood without learning how to cook?” 

According to him, all women in Japan learn to cook before they get married. On our first date, I had made the mistake of serving him an apple. Not that he expected me to slice them with cute bunny ears like the girls he knew back in his hometown near the foot of Mt. Fuji. But at the very least, I could have cut them in slices of roughly the same size. 

He had found himself fascinated by this aberration in female decorum. 

And not surprisingly, he wanted to marry me. 

Before our son was born a few years later, he got it in his head that even if I couldn’t cut apples properly, I might be able to master oranges. 

In Japan, oranges are sometimes served in place of dessert. The fruit is sliced away from the peel, cut into wedges, all pithy bits removed. Without the work of peeling and cutting, the sticky juice running down your arms, an ordinary experience is elevated into a delicacy, even a luxury. It can become an expression of love.


One of the most treasured works of art held in the National Palace Museum in Taipei is a short three-line piece of calligraphy called Presenting Oranges. The original—now lost—was written in the fourth century by Wang Xizhi. Considered the greatest Chinese calligrapher of all time, anything in Wang Xizhi’s hand was said to be priceless during his lifetime. For over a thousand years, students of calligraphy have looked to Wang as a model. But none of his original works have survived. Instead, what we have are seventh-century copies. 

Every year, my calligraphy teacher in Tokyo would organize a pilgrimage to the museum in Taipei so his top students could stand in front of Presenting Oranges. Those trained in the art of writing in brush and ink are not only able to admire the work in terms of its formal aesthetic qualities, but are able to actually feel what it felt like to create it. This is what is so unique about Chinese calligraphy. There are rules. And so, by following the correct stroke order in your mind, you can physically experience the speed and pressure of the brush, as well as take pleasure in the flourishes and full stops. You breathe along, almost as if you were writing it yourself. 

Calligraphy is a performance art: the moment the ink touches the highly-absorbent piece of rice paper, there is no going back. No retouching. No changing one’s mind. And so, the calligraphy—dashed off in semi-cursive script—conflates time and space to capture one precise moment in time. It reads: I present three hundred oranges. Frost has not yet fallen. I cannot get more.

Figure 1

Fig. 1. Presenting Oranges section (center left) of Three Passages: Ping-an, He-ru, and Feng-ju (平安何如三帖), Wang Xizhi (王羲之, ca. 303-361), Jin Dynasty (265-420), Album leaf, ink on paper, 24.7 x 46.8 cm, National Palace Museum, Taipei.


Japan’s oranges are not great. Not compared to what we have in California. But what Japan lacks in delicious oranges, it more than makes up for in tangerines. And nothing says winter in Japan more than a bowl of tangerines placed in the middle of the table. And this is no ordinary table either, but a winter table. Called a kotatsu, it is where families gather. Sitting around on low cushions on the floor, they warm themselves by stretching out their legs under the blanket that covers the kotatsu, beneath which is a heat source, once a charcoal brazier but nowadays electrical. It is the epitome of winter coziness.   

Nine times out of ten, a TV will be on. But this is just background noise for what happens next, when family members—one by one—pick up a tangerine and begin peeling away. The only truly affordable fruit in Japan, people eat tangerines with abandon throughout the winter. Often you will see mothers carefully peeling them for their small children. Never ripping the skin, they carefully peel the fruit in long strips that come to resemble a blossoming flower

I used to peel tangerines for my son like this when he was small, always careful to remove the white pith before handing him the fruit, still cradled in its skin. The perfect little bowl for his perfect little hands.


After twenty-five years in Japan, one day I finally went home. Arriving back in Los Angeles when the orange trees were in flowery bloom, their fragrance nearly knocked me over, flooding me with childhood memories. The poet Mahmoud Darwish said that, “cities are smells.” Well, I can tell you, Los Angeles is the perfume of orange blossoms, jasmine, and the salty sea. 

When I remarried a few years ago, my new husband and I were astonished to have found love again. Neither of us had dared to believe love could bloom again in mid-life. Wanting to celebrate this greatest of gifts, we embarked on a series of honeymoons. Following a trail of oranges, our first stop was Jaffa, in Israel. Once famous for its citrus, we stumbled on “the last orange tree.” Floating a foot off the ground, Orange Suspenda by Israeli artist Ran Morin is the sole survivor, cradled in its stoneware urn and suspended by metal chains to the walls nearby. It is supposed to be a symbol of home, a guide told us.

In Versailles, the orange trees are also in motion. Originating from Portugal, Spain and Italy, some of the trees are quite old. Not suspended off the ground like in Jaffa, instead they are wheeled around, cradled in their boxes. Kept warm in the Orangery during the winter months, they are rolled back out to scatter the Parterres in late spring. 

All for the love of oranges.

There is an even grander orangery at Schönbrunn in Vienna. But perhaps no one celebrated oranges in Europe like the Medici family of Florence. This passion began in the early 1400s, when Cosimo de’ Medici grew citrus trees in giant pots in his palace gardens. In Sandro Botticelli’s painting, LaPrimavera, all the action takes place in a garden that is really an orange grove. Perhaps this was an homage to the painter’s Medici patrons, who were known to have conducted trade with the East in the wildly expensive fruit. Or perhaps it is suggestive of the fact that one of the Latin words for oranges is medici.

Figure 2

Fig. 2. Orange Suspenda, Ran Morin, 1993, Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Israel. Photo courtesy of the author.


From Florence, we headed north, missing the infamous Battle of the Oranges by a few weeks. The event happens during Carnival, when the citizens of a town north of Turin called Ivrea celebrate by pelting each other with oranges. The action is said to get a bit rough so we were happy to head to Milan instead. On our first morning, we hopped on a tram and headed over to Santa Maria delle Grazie, where Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper can be seen. One of the best-known dinner parties in history, the meal is remembered for the bread and wine on the table. But we wondered what else might have been on the menu. A guide, who overheard us, smiled as she told us that artists of the Renaissance loved imagining what might have been served that evening. Because The Last Supper was painted on the refractory walls of the church, where the monks sat around a long table and ate their meals, Leonardo painted the foods that he thought the monks might actually be eating. And so you can see, she said, pointing up toward the middle of the fresco, plates of eel garnished with sliced oranges.


Our final honeymoon took us to Spain. Arriving in Seville, just as the sun was peeking out behind the clouds after a violent rain shower, the smell of orange blossoms was overwhelming.

The Spanish word for orange blossoms comes from the Arabic, azahar. A beautiful-sounding word, it is widely known in Spain as one of the invocations of the Virgin Mary, Nuestra Señora del Azahar. The origin of "Our Lady of the Orange Blossom" is a statue of the Virgin holding a bouquet of orange blossoms found in the Spanish city of Beniaján, near Murcia. 

Spain has long been famous for its oranges. The first orange trees arrived in Spain along with the Muslim invaders of 711. That is when Persian-style gardens with peacocks, fountains, and orange trees became de rigueur in the region. And the Spanish of the south have never looked back. It was Christopher Columbus who brought orange seeds to the New World—these seeds which the Muslims had first brought with them from their gardens in the Middle East. He probably brought sour orange, sweet orange, citron, lemon, lime, and pummelo fruits aboard his ships. And it was the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro who brought them as far south as Peru. 

Not far from Seville stands what is considered to be the oldest garden in Europe. Located inside the precincts of the Mosque of Córdoba, it is known today as the Court of Oranges. Dating back to the end of the 8th century, the garden was once filled with palms, cypresses, and olive trees (the latter supplied the temple’s oil lamps). The orange trees arrived in the 10th century, when—along with lemon trees, apricots, bananas, sugar cane, and date palms—they were introduced into Europe by the Arabs, who valued them for their use in perfumes, jams and medicines.

Figure 3

Fig. 3. Court of Oranges, Great Mosque of Córdoba, Córdoba, Spain. Photo courtesy of the author.


After our honeymoon in southern Spain, I insisted to anyone who would listen that I wanted my own court of oranges. My new husband, a patient guy, told me to look out our kitchen window, where I would find a lemon, grapefruit, and yes—an orange tree. 

But our oranges taste terrible, I complained. 

He reminded me that in Seville, the oranges are bitter and mainly used for preserves. 

That was a few years ago. Now, in the time of the pandemic, I no longer have the luxury of being so picky. I also have more time to see what is right in front of me. And our tree is dripping in oranges. 

It’s like Candide, if he hadn't been kicked out of his homeland, if he hadn't met with a shipwreck and washed unto Lisbon shores only there to be almost killed in a mega-earthquake, if he hadn’t gone up against the Inquisition, if he hadn't traveled across America on foot, if he hadn't killed a baron, if he hadn't lost all his sheep in Eldorado, well, then he wouldn’t have ended up sitting there in Constantinople eating some nice candied citron and pistachios.

"All that is very well, said Candid, but let us cultivate our garden." One day, I grabbed an orange off the tree and carefully peeled it. I removed all the pithy bits and, separating each sliver carefully, I arranged the slices on a reddish-black stoneware plate from Japan. 

I had to admit, the orange slices looked beautiful against the dark plate. 

Setting it down in front of my son—now nineteen—I watched as he ate the orange slices with relish. Smiling at a long-forgotten childhood memory in Japan of being loved and cared for, he told me the orange was delicious.