How To Grow Oranges & Lemons In The UK. Historically Citrus Fruits Have Been Grown In Southern England For Centuries. Here’s How.
Living on the south Devon coast I’m able to grow citrus fruit outdoors all year. These are plants that are planted in the ground, not plants in pots that get taken inside when the weather is cold or excessively wet. In my case, being a mile from the sea, success is at best marginal, but the plants do fruit every year. Though I have to confess that the late growth is often killed off by frosts. So overall plant growth is slow with only spring and early summer growth surviving the winter.
My lemon tree is planted in a sheltered south facing spot against the house, so has this advantage. But I don’t do what the gardeners of the early 18th century did, and that is to protect the plant with screens every night. Maybe I should!
Of course orangeries aren’t exclusive to Devon. Hundreds were built over England with huge numbers also built overseas. For example Napoleon III built one at in 1852 to store the orange trees from the Tuileries in winter. And in Russia, where the weather is much colder, the Sheremetov family built one just outside Moscow at Kuskovo. Many of these orangeries were huge. Paxton’s orangery at Chatsworth was huge.
Near me at Bicton is an orangery of reasonable size.
The advent of many orangeries was made possible by the fact that sheet glass became available in sufficient size to be practicable. But glass isn’t necessary for some protected citrus, as we’ll see in this article.
The History Of Citrus Growing In Devon
The cultivation of orange trees, once an exclusive pursuit of royalty and aristocracy, underwent a notable transformation in the first four decades of the eighteenth century. During this period, almost forty orangeries emerged across the counties of England. The number later increased and today it’s possible to build one on to the most modest of houses!
The Saltram Orangery
Devon, known for its historical engagement in early fruit-growing, both within enclosed spaces and open environments, witnessed the construction of the original orangery at Saltram. Crafted by Henry Stockman in the early 1770s, this structure marked the culmination of the flourishing trend of such captivating buildings.
Featuring expansive sash windows, the Saltram orangery was light and airy, very suitable for orange trees imported from Genoa. These trees graced the outdoor orange grove display from May 29 to the second Wednesday in October.
Orange trees were a common sight on various estates, often alongside other citrus plants, primarily lemons but also limes, shaddocks (resembling grapefruits in size and characterised by a bitter taste), and citrons.
Oranges At Powderham Castle
Surviving historical records even detail the sale of small orange trees at Powderham Castle, the ancestral seat of the Earls of Devon.
Available at different price points, the smaller ones were priced at £2 and half a guinea (10s 6d). While the article did not specify the dates, if we consider the context to be around 1720 £2 in 1720 s would equate to approximately £341 in today’s currency.
Citrus At Coombe Royal
Located a few miles north in Coombe Royal near Kingsbridge, there stands an impressive and commanding recessed and arched citrus wall. Originally part of the Luscombe family home, it now belongs to Devon County Council. The citrus wall, a testament to the high esteem in which citrus fruits were held, commands attention as it curves towards the house, dominating the view from the drive. This wall was a statement to everyone that visited and expressed wealth and horticultural prowess.
Adjacent to the house on the right, there are remnants of another wall, smaller and straight-sided, in a raised garden. Although scant evidence of its function remains, a watercolor painting in the possession of the family obscures the site of the raised garden in a smudge of trees. However, the large conservatory to the left of the house, which complemented the garden during its Victorian and Edwardian heyday, is clearly depicted.
The Luscombes, who owned Coombe Royal from 1722 until the 1880s, gained local and national renown for their cultivation of citrus plants. In 1827, John Luscombe (d.1831) received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Banksian Medal for his oranges, lemons, and citrons. Over a century later, in 1904, the same citron trees were lauded in the Gardeners’ Chronicle for consistently producing large fruits, ranging from 43 to 48 cms (17″ to 19″) in circumference. It was also mentioned that in 1850, a selection of Coombe Royal’s citrus plants received admiring comments from Queen Victoria. The large photograph of the arched ‘Orange-wall garden’ and the exclamation mark introducing ‘The Orange Garden!’ on the subsequent page suggest that this feature was, and still is, the highlight at Coombe Royal.
Evidence about the orange wall indicates bay widths of approximately 4.5 metres (15 feet) and a similar height, with the recess itself measuring around one-third of a metre (1 foot) in depth. However, the article did not specify the number of arches on the south-facing wall or their uniformity in size. Fortunately, a prior article from the August 1871 issue of the Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener provided additional details. Each recess was noted to have a height of almost 3.3 meters (11 feet), with varying widths. The largest recess, at 4.8 meters (16 feet), housed the citron; the second-largest, at 4.5 meters (15 feet), accommodated the lemon. The remaining six recesses, each 3.6 metres (12 feet) wide, were allocated to the Seville orange, lime, mandarin, shaddock, and mandarin orange. The article suggested that those wishing to replicate the model should increase the width to 5.4 metres (18 feet) to minimize the need for branch pruning, which might impact fruitfulness.
The diverse array of citrus trees included a Seville orange, purportedly over two hundred and fifty years old, consistently yielding over two hundred fruits of varying sizes. The favored spot may have also been utilized for cultivating peaches, as evidenced by a row of small trained trees in an undated photograph.
By 1904, eighteen pyramidical Retinospora obtusa ‘Aurea,’ roughly half the height of the wall, had been planted behind the gravel walk, flanking its entire length. The landscape featured large flower beds on the grassy slope, climbers against the pillars, and waist-high iron railings beyond the flower beds. A list of shrubs and trees planted behind the walk, connecting it to the pleasure ground, underscored the significance of this garden area. The practice of protecting the citrus with wooden-framed mats continued into the mid-twentieth century, with vast three-section high panels serving as a backdrop in a 1939 photograph of the gardener, Mr. Webb.
Regrettably, maintenance at Coombe Royal has been inconsistent over the years, and despite recent efforts by the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) to clear invading plant material, the unique and significant citrus wall is in a precarious state.
Citrus Success at Salcombe
A little over two centuries ago, Woodville (now recognized as Woodcot) in Salcombe cultivated oranges, lemons, limes, and citrons along a south-facing wall standing at 3.65 metres (12 feet) high, relying solely on straw matting to shield the plants during the winter. Such horticultural practices were not uncommon in and around Salcombe. At Cliff House, the residence of the Customs Agent, Mr. Barrable, there existed a recessed wall specifically designed for citrus plants. Benefiting from a micro-climate with temperatures akin to Florence, Salcombe proved to be an ideal location for these pioneering endeavours with what were then considered exotic plants. Many oil us still consider citrus to be exotic!
In recent times, there has been a renewed interest in year-round outdoor cultivation of citrus plants, reflecting a revived enthusiasm for this botanical pursuit. As along ago as the 1980s I recall a Spanish grower setting up in England, where his nursery offered only citrus plants.
The revival is now speeding up. Today, I’m told Saltram boasts flourishing orange trees. Ten trees in splendid wooden tubs form a half circle in front of the expansive Orangery, and the display extends to the small Tudor courtyard and the orange grove. Adding to the charm, graceful white Chinoiserie tubs reminiscent of the mid-eighteenth century enhance the overall aesthetic.
The year-round outdoor cultivation of orange trees is experiencing a recent resurgence, tracing its roots to the earliest years of citrus cultivation. This revival is apparently also taking place at Coleton Fishacre, near Kingswear on the south Devon coast. The microclimate at this National Trust property, once the residence of the D’Oyly Carte family, provides an ideal environment for cultivating tender plants from the Mediterranean and beyond. Instead of relying on a traditional masonry wall, protection for the orange trees is offered in the sheltered valley. A combination of traditional and contemporary techniques will be employed to determine which varieties thrive in this setting.
The rise in temperatures due to global warming might see further cultivation of citrus fruit, potentially leading to a broader revival in other historical gardens across the county as well as in private gardens and on allotments.
Your Experience of Oranges & Lemons In The UK
I’d love to gather more info on citrus growing in the UK and welcome your comments and experiences in the comments.