Citrus species – Rutaceae family

In the 1700s, oranges were at the center of a storm. Thanks to global exploration, citrus and other tropical fruit had increased in popularity. Orange groves were naturalizing well in the Americas so availability was spreading. The world was not only eating more oranges but Pettigrain oil (distilled from orange leaves) and Neroli oil (from the flowers) perfumed the air. Their reputation for “soothing the nerves” only increased sales.

News was trickling in that Bitter Orange, called Zhi qiao or Zhi shi, treated nausea and heartburn in Chinese medicine. Another fruit known as Mandarin Orange was said to cure chest pain and malaria. The winds were rising.

It was Scottish surgeon James Lind (1716-1794) who invoked the tempest of 1753 when he reported successfully treating scurvy by feeding sailors oranges. Lind didn’t know scurvy was caused by lack of vitamin C. He believed citrus stimulated digestion thereby allowing the disease to leave the body. Lind’s findings were hotly debated for 40 years. The British navy refused to believe that a simple orange could defeat the disease known as the “scourge of the seas.”

More than two centuries later, another storm is brewing around citrus. Modern science has identified a controversial constituent in bitter orange extract known as synephrine. This chemical raises blood pressure in the body when taken internally. Some are using this effect to trigger weight loss as an alternative to ephedrine (from the desert plant ephedra). The problems that arose from using it for metabolic “amping” and rapid weight loss instead of its intended use as asthma treatment resulted in a ban of ephedra in the US. Scientists, herbalists and lawmakers are turning their eyes towards the humble orange once again.