Lue Gim Gong: The Citrus Wizard

Posted by on May 15, 2024 in People and Culture, Stuff You Should Know

The next time you enjoy eating a sweet, juicy Valencia orange, think of Lue Gim Gong. In 1911, Lue Gim Gong created a new type of orange that could withstand cold temperatures as it grew. Today, the Lue Gim Gong orange is more commonly known as a Valencia orange. Because of the orange’s importance, Lue Gim Gong became known as the “Citrus Wizard.” 

From China to the United States 

Lue Gim Gong was born in Guangzhou, in southwest China, in 1857. As a child, he worked in a nearby orange orchard. His mother taught him how to cross pollinate orange blossoms. Cross-pollination is the process of transferring pollen from one flower to the part of another flower that produces fruit or seeds. This process is done to produce a new plant with a desired trait, such as creating a specific color or making a plant stronger and more able to withstand harsher weather conditions.  

black and white photo of Lue Gim Gong standing in garden.
Lue Gim Gong

When Lue Gim Gong was around 12 years old his uncle took him to the United States. Lue Gim Gong worked at a shoe factory in San Francisco until he was 16. Then he moved to North Adams, Massachusetts, where he worked in another shoe factory. In North Adams, young Chinese workers were paired with a tutor who taught them English. Lue Gim Gong’s tutor was Frances “Fannie” Burlingame. Over time, Lue Gim Gong and Burlingame became good friends. Burlingame invited Lue Gim Gong to live in her home with her family. Lue Gim Gong became a beloved member of the Burlingame household. He especially enjoyed working in the Burlingame’s garden and greenhouse. 

Illness and Family Conflict 

In the mid-1880s, Lue Gim Gong was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is a serious illness that mainly affects the lungs. His doctor believed that the harsh cold climate of Massachusetts would worsen the effects of tuberculosis and advised him to return to the tropical climate of Guangzhou. Lue Gim Gong returned to his family in China. Soon, family conflict arose. Lue Gim Gong refused to marry a woman that his family had chosen for him and fled the country once again for the United States.  

Becoming a U.S. Citizen 

Back in the U.S., Lue Gim Gong again stayed with the Burlingame family who now lived in Deland, Florida. They had recently purchased land where they grew orange trees. Lue Gim Gong thrived in Florida. The Burlingame family helped him became an American citizen and he voted in his first election.  

A New Type of Orange 

During the 1890s, Florida experienced several cold growing seasons. The extreme temperatures destroyed the orange trees. Citrus farmers, including the Burlingame family, lost money because they could not sell their oranges. Lue Gim Gong used his knowledge of cross-pollination techniques to develop an orange that could withstand frost. His efforts were successful. He created a sweet, juicy orange that could endure severe weather. The orange was named the Lue Gim Gong Orange. It was hailed by newspapers as saving the citrus industry millions of dollars. Today, the orange is more commonly referred to as the Valencia orange.  

Lue Gim Gong went on to cross-pollinate other fruits and flowers. He created a sweet-smelling grapefruit that could withstand cold temperatures and an apple that ripened a month ahead of other varieties. Floridians called him the “Citrus Wizard.” In 1911, Lue Gim Gong’s work was recognized by the American Pomological Society. The organization was created to foster the growing of fruit and developing new types of fruits. Lue Gim Gong received the prestigious Silver Wilder Medal, the first time the award was given for improvements in citrus fruits.  

Dig Deeper Research online how cross-pollination has been used in the fruit and vegetable industries. What advancements have been made that help farmers produce better crops? Share your findings in a visual presentation to the class.