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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Our navels, innies and outies alike are scars. They're remnants of that momentous cut, separating mother from infant. It's called an umbilotomy(ph), by the way. But why do navel oranges have navels? It must be time for Science Out of the Box.

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Vince Moses is an historian of the orange. He lives in Riverside, California, shangri-la to the navel orange. Vince Moses used to be the director of the Riverside Metropolitan Museum; and in his time, he admits he's done plenty of navel-gazing.

Mr. VINCE MOSES (Orange Historian; Former Director, Riverside Metropolitan Museum): That appearance of a navel on the orange is the result of a mutation that created what scientists call a conjoined twin. That is a small, aborted second orange at the outer end, opposite the stem. It looks like a human navel. It's in fact a small second orange.

LYDEN: So that's why when you pull apart a nice, juicy navel orange, you find these cute Lilliputian sections hiding in the center. And the mutation that started it all? A single branch on a sour orange tree in the garden of a monastery in Brazil.

A Presbyterian missionary came upon it in the mid-1800s. He was a bit of an amateur horticulturalist, so it intrigued him that not only did the orange have a belly button and a baby orange inside, it was sweet, and it had no seeds.

He made a cutting, propagated some little trees and sent them to Washington, to a fellow called William Saunders at the USDA. Now, how they got from Saunders out to California and revolutionized the citrus industry is a fascinating tale, which we're going to get to, but listen to it with this in mind.

Mr. MOSES: Because the navel orange, through that mutation, is seedless, all - in fact, all of the navel oranges that we see today and that we eat today are genetically identical with the original orange.

LYDEN: That's right. The produce aisle is filled with clones of that mutation from Bahia, Brazil. Of course, a seedless orange has no way to reproduce naturally, so a nurseryman has to give Mother Nature a little assistance, grafting sprouted buds onto another tree's trunk and roots, just as William Saunders did at the USDA back in the 1800s.

Saunders, to continue our tale, had a neighbor in Washington named Eliza Tibbets(ph); and according to our orange historian, when Ms. Tibbets' husband blew the family fortune, the couple headed west. They landed in the new Riverside colony about 1872. It had a nice Mediterranean climate, and the residents were staking their future on subtropical fruits. Mrs. Tibbets was their golden ticket.

Mr. MOSES: When they saw the offering of these new and exotic varieties of orange from the Department of Agriculture, Eliza wrote to her friend William Saunders, her former neighbor.

LYDEN: And he sent her two or maybe three tiny, little starter trees.

Mr. MOSES: It's an apocryphal story, maybe a kind of a folk legend that her cow trampled one of the three little trees, but they were planted. Two of them grew to maturity. And when they were about five or six years old, maybe around 1879, fruit from those trees, seedless as predicted and as promised, turned out to win a citrus fair in the Riverside area and were pronounced the most spectacular citrus fruit anyone had ever seen or anyone had ever tasted, and bam. There you have the rise of what became immensely successful commercial navel orange industry.

LYDEN: One of Mrs. Tibbets' two trees, by the way, still stands and bears fruit at the corner of Magnolia and Arlington in the middle of Riverside. Its roots have been swapped out, and its fruit is kind of small these days, but it still holds quite a story.

This year, California alone produced about 64 million cartons of navel oranges. Vince Moses has a few of the trees in his own yard. This weekend, he and his wife are traveling up the California coast to visit their son, and, naturally, they're bringing some navels along as a gift.

Mr. MOSES: I am taking some. These are the last of the season, really, and they're just hanging on by their chinny-chin-chin, or their navel, as it were.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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