Looking Through the Glass: The Orangerie at Southall

An orange growing on a tree

Whether by discovery of weary explorers or a simple gift for deep-hollow Appalachian children at Christmas time, the sweet orange has warmed hearts for many centuries. Looking back through the annals of time, the story of how citrus made its way to the new world may be just as romantic.

One garden journal from 1178 B.C. describes the active cultivation of twenty seven varieties of sweet, sour and mandarin oranges in Asia, which eventually made their way down the Silk Road to the Middle East. Floor tiles from the ruins at Pompeii depict citrus — including lemons and limes — that date to 310 B.C. Then the Romans perfected glassmaking, followed by the mass production of glass windows, and elaborate Renaissance-style orangeries became an icon of high garden design throughout Europe — Versailles to Nuremburg, Brussels to Vienna, and then up to Moscow and Warsaw, and down to London and Dublin. Examples of early orangeries survive today as classically designed greenhouses, built to showcase the noble citrus.

From Spain’s Valencia region, where the moors had planted oranges 500 years prior, Ponce de Leon brought fruit to eat and seeds to plant when he arrived around Saint Augustine, Florida, on his first expedition in 1513. Throughout Colonial America, elaborate orangeries were a featured folly on the farms of wealthy planters attracted to the ideal of exotic gardening, serving both as functional spaces and halls of entertainment. George Washington’s Mount Vernon added an orangerie in 1787, borrowing from the radiant underfloor heating system utilized at London’s Kensington Palace. The warmth must have been welcomed not only for citrus production, but for late season parties.

Likewise, sweet and sour flavors have been coveted through the centuries for culinary use, a central element of not only Asian cuisine, but Arabic, medeival European, and early American.

As an epicurian, Tyler Brown was always intrigued by citrus, and an orangerie at Southall was high on his list of wants when the dream for the property was first coming together. Since 2018, the stately 5,000-square-foot conservatory has been greeting travelers passing by on Carter’s Creek Pike. This fall, the orange and yellow balls at the ends of laden limbs glowed through the windows for the first time, as four-year-old trees yielded their first true citrus harvest.

Brown cites Dr. David Shields’ work with the Southern Foodways Alliance, the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation and the University of South Carolina as one inspiration. Shields’ book Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine was an incredible reference in the development of the orangerie at Southall, Brown says, as was the late Southern cuisine author John Edgerton’s Calamondin jam given he received as a Christmas gift as a young chef.

Now the lemons — Meyer, Yuzu, pink variegated, Ponderosa — grow alongside the Calamondin, the Caracara navel and marsh grapefruit, the Moro blood orange, Satsuma and Kishu mandarin, Nules clementine, and Bearss seedless lime. The citrus plants, now reaching toward the soaring ceiling as mature citrus trees, were grafted onto cold-hardy root stock, even though solar radiance and supplemental heaters keep the orangerie plenty warm.

Over the last four years, tasting notes have been developed on each fruit, as well as lessons learned on the timing of peak ripeness for harvest. The list of varieties grown was developed both through familiarity and curiosity — reading about rare citrus, then tracking down the plants. In 2021, we’re finally able to experiment with them in the test kitchen, eagerly anticipating memorable menus to come in the New Year.

“The fact that we are producing our own citrus still blows me away, not to mention the variety,” Brown says. “I look forward to experiencing the fruits of the orangerie in our cocktail program and other menu offerings, but I’m most excited about the unforeseen.”