Life is slowly be­ing squeezed out of the Rex Union

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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.

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