Citrus was introduced to the New World by the famous adventurer Christopher Columbus in 1493, but it was not until the mid-1500s that the first orange tree was planted by none other than Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine.
Right now you may be reeling in shock that oranges are not native to Florida, but that is ok, because Florida is now the second largest producer of oranges next to Brazil, and the single greatest producer of grapefruits in the world.
So how did citrus farming start on the First Coast? Well, after oranges were introduced by Spanish settlers, more and more orange groves were planted in and around St. Augustine. The industry was thriving and one of the first successful orange plantations was started on Fish Island, near St. Augustine, by Jesse Fish. El Vergel, as the plantation was called, put into practice a different way to care for oranges during harvest that saved oranges from being squished. One man would pick the oranges and hand them down to another man who put the fruit carefully into a barrel for shipment.
During the early 1800s, it is estimated that over 2 million oranges were sent out from St. Augustine and surrounding areas, but that would not last long.
In 1835, the First Coast saw one of its coldest winter spells in history. For 10 days straight, freezing air blew in from the northwest, freezing parts of the St. Johns River. At one point the temperature dropped to 7 degrees Fahrenheit. This bitter cold destroyed the citrus crops of that year.
After many years, the citrus groves returned , but again in 1894, two deep freezes over a couple months completely obliterated the citrus crop of St. Augustine. It was time to move farther south.
After that time, and with the introduction of the railroad, access to the southern parts of Florida became easier and citrus farmers moved to warmer areas. Citrus on the First Coast is not unheard of now, but is nowhere near its heyday of the early 1800s.