Eliza Tibbets and the Parent Navel Orange Tree

After they were married, Eliza and Luther moved to Washington, D.C. where they were neighbors of William Saunders, who was in charge of the greenhouses for the U. S. government Plant Importation Program. Saunders had received cuttings of a seedless orange from Bahia, Brazil, which were propagated in the government greenhouses using existing rootstock.

Luther Tibbets was one of the earliest settlers of Riverside arriving in 1870. After settling, Eliza wrote to their friend in Washington D.C., William Saunders, asking for some fruit trees. The Tibbets planted two trees in their front yard on Central Avenue near Palm. In the Riverside climate, the seedless orange exceeded all expectations growing to a greater size with much improved flavor. The orange was named the Washington Navel. Some accounts say that Eliza watered the young trees from her dishpan water. While this is possible, she arranged with neighbors who were professional nurserymen to care for the trees, and they did so eagerly.

In January 1878, Riverside’s orange growers held a small private show where they were introduced to the seedless orange and pronounced it excellent. In 1885, the Washington Navel Orange captured both the gold and silver medals at the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial in New Orleans. Riverside immediately began an intensive promotional program proclaiming Riverside as ‘The Greatest Orange Growing City in the World.’ By 1895, Riverside had become the wealthiest city per capita in the nation as local growers accumulated fortunes from the citrus industry. The Washington Navel Orange was soon growing in all parts of the world where soil and weather conditions were similar to Riverside’s.

While the Washington Navel was successfully propagated and became a financial boon to Riverside growers, the Tibbets suffered economic hardship. Luther Tibbets became involved in an ongoing dispute over water rights and by the turn of the century had lost most of his property. Eliza died in 1898, leaving an aging Luther to battle on almost penniless until his death in 1902. The parent navel orange trees on the Tibbets property were given to the Pioneer Historical Society of Riverside that same year. One tree was planted in the front courtyard of the Mission Inn and survived until 1921. The other one was planted in a small triangular park at the junction of Arlington and Magnolia Avenue where it can be seen today.

Although Eliza Tibbets received none of the personal fortune that came from the first two seedless orange trees sent to her from Washington, D.C., she played an important role in history. Most of the Washington Navel trees in California originated from these two trees. Her request for fruit trees for the new community of Riverside set in motion a chain of events which resulted in a major contribution to the history of California and the citrus industry worldwide.