The Orange Tree - Sowing the Seeds of Faith

​St Dominic's Orange Tree at Santa Sabina, the Mother Church of the Dominicans

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​Not only did Dominic bring something of his home country to the mother church of the Order which would bear his name, he has given us the orange tree symbolically, by sowing the seeds of faith as the Patron Saint of San Sisto College and gifting thro​ugh the Dominican Order the charism of studying and passing on to others the fruits of contemplation.

More than 800 years ago, Dominic planted the seed of an orange tree that he had brought from Spain in the grounds of Santa Sabina, Rome, the mother church of the Roman Catholic Order of Preachers (commonly known as the Dominicans).  The tree that grew is said to be the first orange tree cultivated in Italy.

It is thought that the orange tree which stands in the cloisters at Santa Sabina has continued to regenerate from that very tree.  This may have been the result of careful tending and propagation by the friars residing at Santa Sabina since the 1200s, a feat quite extraordinary in any horticulturalist's handbook.  (The tree in situ is reported to have been propagated in 1939.)  However, for centuries this tree has been described as miraculous, a new plant appearing perennially from the roots of the original tree deep underground.  Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622) writes of this in correspondence to Saint Jane Frances de Chantal in which he explained that the perennial tree had become part of the Dominican narrative.

In his 1938 book “Hesperides: A History of the Culture and Use of Citrus Fruits", Samuel Tolkowsky writes:  “A prominent member of the Dominican order told me that a new branch is said to have sprung up from the old trunk in the year in which Lacordaire reestablished the Dominican order in France (1941).  I have carefully examined the tree and while it is obvious that the present trunk is not the original one, the root is undoubtedly of great age, and in view of the extraordinary care which the Monks look after it, I do not consider it altogether an impossibility that the root should be the actual survivor of the tree originally planted in Saint Dominic's time."

Dominic's tree is said to have provided the fruit which Catherine of Siena candied and offered to Urban VI in 1379, while more fruit was used to make swathes and keepsakes for other popes and cardinals.

The tradition of planting orange trees in commemoration of St Dominic first occurred in Australia, when Dominican nuns migrating from Ireland in 1867 brought with them orange seeds from the Santa Sabina tree,​ planting them in Maitland, foundation site of the first Dominican Sisters in this country.  At San Sisto College, we have followed this tradition, planting our own orange trees in 2006, grafted from the Maitland tree. We endeavour to​ tend to our trees as assiduously as the friars are said to tend to theirs at Santa Sabina.​