It’s hard to believe, but it wasn’t too long ago that if you headed East out of Los Angeles, beautifully vibrant orange groves stretched as far as the eye could see. Even before we were known for our movie production, citrus growing was one of the area’s main economic booms on which many towns and suburbs in the San Gabriel Valley, Inland Empire and Orange County were built. The 1870’s, when the first Navel orange trees were planted in Riverside, coincided with the completion of the first Intercontinental Railroad. This allowed orange growers to easily transport fresh, sweet and ripe citrus grown under our bright blue and temperate winter skies, to the shivering masses huddled under snowy gray skies back East. This boom continued until the end of World War II, when real estate became a more precious commodity than our sweet tasting orange gold. As bulldozers paved paradise to put in parking lots and Foothill Blvd, once the quirky 60-mile main artery of the “Citrus Belt”, became an unidentifiable smear of strip malls and chain stores, much of our history was cemented over.
Luckily, not all is completely lost. The La Verne Heritage Foundation, formed in 1985, took over one of the last working citrus orchards in the area and founded Heritage Park. Spread over 4 acres, the park contains the 1880’s built Weber House, one of the oldest houses left in La Verne and over 140 orange and grapefruit trees which are ripe for the picking in January through about March each year. The little park is truly magical. It is set up to represent a 1915 working citrus orchard and is a direct view to how things once were in this part of California. Adding to the magic and the fun is the opportunity to get lost amongst the fruit heavy trees while picking your own sweet oranges.
Starting at the beginning of January each year, when the sweetness of the Naval oranges are at their peak, Heritage Park opens their grove to public picking on Saturdays from 9am-3pm. The cost is $5 per 5-pound mesh bag that you can stuff as full as possible. The groves here are completely organic; absolutely no pesticides have been used. It’s a relaxing way to spend the afternoon. At the beginning of the season, the trees are so full of fruit that the oranges are accessible to even very small children. As the season moves to its conclusion, typically around mid-March, it may be necessary to use the handy dandy citrus pickers laid out near the entrance. Walking around you can see the old fashioned smudge pots throughout the orchard that are still burned to prevent frost on extra chilly nights. They were invented after a particularly devastating California frost in 1913 that ruined crops. They are not so common anymore.
The Naval oranges at this orchard are among the sweetest I’ve ever tasted. This may be because of all of the love invested in them. Heritage Park uses volunteers to work the orchard and to run the concession stand who are committed because of the specialness of this little slice of the past.
La Verne Heritage Foundation: 5001 Vía De Mansion, La Verne, CA 91750; (909) 293-9005.