The streets of almost every Greek town and city are lined with orange trees.
Visitors are amazed. Fruit trees in the streets?
Well, not exactly.
The short, bushy trees with the glossy leaves are actually bitter oranges. Their fruit has a strong, bitter taste that makes them all but inedible. Like their more palatable cousins, bitter oranges don’t shed their leaves. Their thick crown remains dark green all year round, laden with bright oranges in the winter and sweet-smelling blossoms in spring. Besides, the variety is somewhat hardier and more resistant to frost and blight than regular, cultivated orange trees. Their small size and hardiness make them ideal for planting in the narrow sidewalks of a temperate city such as Athens.
But are their fruit ever picked?
Well, yes, sometimes.
Greeks use the green, unripe fruit or the peel of the mature ones for making preserves, but, as far as I know, it takes boiling two or three times (and throwing away the water) to get rid of the excessive bitterness before adding tons of sugar to make them edible. It’s no wonder the custom is dying out.
Ripe or not, bitter oranges also have a long history of being used as projectiles by demostrators – be it against German occupation forces, junta policemen, or modern riot police. Lately, after the “crisis” began, city cleaning crews were observed to carefully remove all the fruit in the city centre, in an attempt to deprive potential protestors of any ammunition.
But by far more important than their fruit, is the thick, cool shade the trees provide during the hot months of summer.
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There street trees in Athens are certainly very attractive and very very bitter to eat! Do you know the botanical name. Maybe Citrus aurantium, also know as Seville orange, bitter orange, sour orange. Here in Australia the gurus say the roughy skinned form makes better marmilade than the smooth sweat skinned form, thought I am more interested in the ornamental use of them, as in Athens. Presumably they are grow from seed? Athens has a hot and dry in summer, so they must be able to handle a long hot dry summer, or maybe there is a high underground water the trees thrive on – they certainly seem well adapted to the Attic climate and soil. Would love to grow them here, but I have read oranges need watering once a week in the hot dry climate here. (Near Adelaide).
Indeed, the species is citrus aurantium. There is no underground water in Athens the trees can tap, but there is no evaporation either, as the soil is paved over. The trees are planted in Greece precisely because they can stand the dry heat of Greek summers. Generally speaking though, while cleaning a building, the cleaning service will wash the pavement in front of it too and water the trees planted there. This usually happens once a week, but if not, the trees will keep on thriving for a long time without being watered.
Thank you for finding time to reply. I’m asking my Greek friends in Adelaide if any of them or their friends have a bitter Orange growing in their home garden, hope to get some seeds to grow a few as a living memory of Athens in my backyard at home – they should thrive here from what you say, look and smell great, provide shade, and not be a fire hazard like our attractive but very flammable oily native trees. Χαίρε John
Most people grow them from saplings. If your thumbs are rather green, you may be able to grow them from seeds. Should I send you some? If you wish, e-mail me for details. Check it out with authorities first – I hear Australian laws are very strict about importing non-endemic species.
Unfortunately I would be shot at dawn if you posted me vegetable material! It is even illegal to import from other Australians State! Thanks for you help and interest.
Shot at dawn! Good grief! Better not send them then…
Ακριβώς! The cirus growers are concerned about introducing plant pathogens with plant material. They have ni sense of humour about this! Doubt if bitter oranges would go feral like olives have. Ευχαριστώ πολύ, Αντίο.