Life is slowly being squeezed out of the Rex Union
Once upon a time there was an orange… Some fairy tales are true, while others are false. The fable that follows is a bit of both. It travels in and out of centuries, and across continents. It involves halfremembered kings, queens, huntsmen, slaves and missing millions.
There is even an endangered amber-hued beauty in an isolated orchard. The beauty has an odd name – Rex Union – a thick skin and is often more bitter than sweet. But we won’t hold that against it because the beauty is not a person but a rare, uniquely South African, citrus-fruit cross between a Seville orange and a pomelo grapefruit.
The Rex Union was created in the 1840s in what is now North West by George Wellington Rex III. Local legend has it that he was the son of the 18th-century British King George III and a Quaker woman, Hannah Lightfoot. In the mythical version of the story, the couple were banished to the Cape because the royal family disapproved of Hannah’s religious affiliations. Here they went forth, multiplied and produced an heir to the British throne who could have changed the history of modern Europe. The couple supposedly took the surname Rex as a reference to the Latin word for king.
It’s a cute story, but not actually true – as was conclusively proved by genetic testing in 2004, which showed that none of the many South Africans with the surname Rex possessed royal blood.
But the Rex family’s fact is as interesting as the fiction. A Britishborn entrepreneur called George Rex (1765-1839) did live on the farm in the Knysna district. He wasn’t the son of a king, but a distiller.
His will shows he owned 33 slaves and, while he did not submit to the matrimonial laws of the Cape Colony, had four children by a former slave, Johanna Rosina van der Caap, and nine children by one of her daughters, Carolina Margaretha Ungerer. The will clarifies that Ungerer was Van der Caap’s daughter “by a previous master”. Rex was the eldest son of George and Van der Caap. George Wellington Rex III grew up to be a doctor, a keen hunter and a friend of President Paul Kruger, who granted him land on the Boschfontein farm outside Rustenburg. Some say this is the secret location of the long-lost Kruger millions. It was at Boschfontein that the man who was not the son of a king did something majestic when he developed a uniquely South African citrus fruit by crossing an orange and a grapefruit. He named the creation after himself and the trees flourished and found fame. Until the mid-20th century, the Rex Union was enormously popular with marmalade makers locally and internationally. If we had stopped the story in 1950, it would have seemed like a happily-ever-after affair, but since then there has been rampant destruction of biodiversity.
The stately fruit – and marmalade – has fallen out of favour. Row upon row of Rex Union trees have been cut down. There is now only one Rex Union orchard at Boschfontein. It has 273 trees in it and many of them are reaching the end of their fruiting lives. The owner of the remaining orchard recently died and the property is to be auctioned off in the middle of this month.
There is a very real possibility that the trees will be removed by the new owner.
The Rex Union orange may be living out the last of its days.