Trifoliate Orange Tree – Care, Uses, Benefits & Concerns

Oranges can be found in various shapes, colors, and sizes. This includes not only the fruit but also the trees themselves. The trifoliate orange tree distinguishes itself from its relatives with its distinctive thorny appearance and slightly toxic fruits.

Are trifoliate orange trees dangerous? Trifoliate orange fruits are highly acidic. Excessive consumption can cause nausea and stomach pain. The rinds are packed with volatile chemicals that cause skin irritation when they contact the skin. Many people grow these shrubs for their ornamental values rather than their fruits.

Read more to find out about trifoliate orange trees, how to take care of them and how to consume the fruits safely in different recipes.

Trifoliate Orange Trees – What To Know

Trifoliate orange trees (Poncirus trifoliata) is more of a shrub than a tree. It’s native to China and Korea, but it can adapt to the cold regions of the US.

It was first introduced to American soil in the early 19th century but started to gain popularity after the Civil War. This citrus grows well in Zone 6 and has shown good tolerance for frost and very cold winters. 

The trifoliate orange goes by many names including Chinese bitter orange, Korean bitter orange, and hardy orange. The best-known cultivar is the Flying Dragon orange, which has exceptionally knotted stems and sharp thorns.

Trifoliate Orange Tree Appearance & Size

As the name implies, the leaves of the trifoliate orange tree grow in clusters of three. The middle leaf is usually the largest of the three measuring 2.5 inches long.

The leaves are deep green, smooth, and half folded at the sides. The trifoliate orange tree is a deciduous tree that sheds its leaves in the late fall. New growth starts in April.

New shoots often develop thorns before the first leaves emerge. The thorns are about 2.5 inches long and very sharp. They penetrate the skin easily and cause pain that lasts for a few hours. The small tree (or large shrub) is usually 13 to 26 feet tall at full maturity.

Are Trifoliate Orange Tree Leaves Toxic?

The leaves of the trifoliate orange tree, much like its fruits, are slightly toxic. Although the leaves are not edible, pets might ingest them by mistake.

Symptoms of toxicity include excessive drooling, thirst, red spots around the mouth, vomiting, and diarrhea. In cases of severe poisoning, the animal might go into a coma. 

You should seek medical help in cases of leaf poisoning. The same applies if a person consumes the leaves by mistake. 

Are Trifoliate Oranges Edible?

The fruits of the trifoliate oranges are a different matter. Although bitter and highly acidic, they are quite edible. However, those two characteristics should deter you from consuming the fruit in large quantities.

Overconsumption could cause mild poisoning with symptoms ranging from nausea to sharp stomach pain. Moderation is recommended when it comes to this hardy orange.

If you don’t like to eat it raw, you can use the trifoliate oranges to make marmalades, jams, jellies, or smoothies, or add the zest to your cookies and dessert for a rich and tangy flavor.

Use these fruits and all their parts sparingly in your food because of the high acidity and mild toxicity.

What Does Trifoliate Orange Fruit Taste Like?

Imagine if you blended the juices of a lemon and a grapefruit together and then drank the whole lot in one gulp. That’s what the trifoliate orange fruit tastes like.

To say that it’s bitter is putting it mildly. Yet, it has a much tangier taste and richer flavors than grapefruit and lemon put together. Only a few people eat it raw because of its notorious bite, not to mention its high acidity.

A trifoliate orange tree with fruits and thorns.

Can Trifoliate Oranges Make You Sick?

Moderation is recommended with all types of food. If you eat too many candies, you’ll get sick. The same applies to trifoliate oranges.

However, the fruits of hardy orange are mildly toxic and highly acidic on top of that. So eating too many oranges or drinking too many smoothies with the trifoliate orange as the main ingredient can make you sick.

Symptoms of trifoliate orange toxicity include nausea and sharp stomach pain. Although the symptoms will disappear in a while, you’re advised against consuming the fruit again for some time.

Physical contact with the rinds of the orange can cause skin irritation which will last for a few hours.

Should You Add Trifoliate Orange Peel to Your Compost?

Trifoliate orange peel is rich in nitrogen, which is an essential component in any healthy compost. The volatile oils in the rinds ferment quickly and help break down not just the orange peel but other organic ingredients in the compost pile.

However, you shouldn’t go overboard with the trifoliate orange peel. If you have a lot of rinds, cut them into small pieces, and add them to the pile one small portion at a time.

Is Poncirus trifoliata Considered an Invasive Species?

Since it was introduced to the United States in the early 19th century, trifoliate orange has expanded its territory and invaded every open space within its reach.

These days you can find the trifoliate orange trees in urban green spaces, woodlands, forest edges, and fencerows. The bitter fruits ripen and burst, spreading the seeds in the vicinity where they grow and become new thorny shrubs.

Ideal Growing Conditions of Trifoliate Orange Trees

To ensure your trifoliate orange tree is growing well, plant it in well-draining soil and select a sunny spot that gets 6 to 8 hours of full sun during the spring and summer. Shady spots will not encourage the tree to grow or flower.

Full sun is also a prerequisite for the ripening of the fruits, which are ready to harvest in the fall. The tree is not susceptible to many pests or diseases and doesn’t require much feeding.

How To Safely Prune a Trifoliate Orange Tree

When pruning a tree or a shrub, safety should be your top concern, more so if the tree in question is slightly toxic and has sharp thorns.

Although you can always use loppers to cut its thick and thorny branches, it’s almost always necessary to reach inside the tree’s canopy to cut damaged or entangled branches.

Both eyewear and long protective gloves are a must before you venture deep inside of the trifoliate orange shrub with a pair of shears.

Wear long sleeves and long pants to protect your skin against the thorns and toxins in the leaves. Heavy boots are also recommended to avoid stepping on the nasty thorns.

Does Poncirus trifoliata Make a Good Rootstock?

Trifoliate orange is a sinewy small tree with twisted branches but a robust root ball. More often than not, the rootstock of the hardy orange is used to graft other citrus species with tastier fruits such as Owari satsuma and Meyer lemon.

Best Places To Buy Trifoliate Orange Tree Seeds

The trifoliate orange tree seeds are ubiquitous in most local nurseries in and around Zone 6. If you live in a moderate to cool climate zone, chances are you’ll find the seeds of the hardy orange in the local nursery. Otherwise, you can buy the seeds online. is an excellent source that I personally recommend and use. You’ll get strong healthy trees and superb customer service with every order.

Trifoliate Orange Tree Uses

Most people who are not fans of bitter oranges that come with a dash of stomach pain don’t grow the trifoliate orange tree for its fruits. Rather, it serves as a good hedge shrub with its twisted and tortured sinewy branches. The ripe oranges add a touch of bright color throughout the winter.

If you don’t have a sweet tooth, you can take advantage of the bitter fruits and their extra zesty rinds in your cuisine. They add a tangy flavor to smoothies, juices, jellies, and marmalades. 

Trifoliate Orange Fruit Health Benefits

Despite its sour taste, or perhaps because of it, the trifoliate oranges are packed with healthy nutrients. Coumarins are at the top of the list of compounds that act as antioxidants and improve blood flow.

The fruit was used in moderate doses in folk medicine to treat inflammation, nausea, and several types of allergies.

Medicinal Value of Trifoliate Orange Seeds

Trifoliate orange seeds contain antibacterial materials that can be used to kill microbes and other pathogens in food. Extracts from the seeds are currently being researched to determine their efficacy in preserving processed foods and prolonging their shelf life.

Recipes Using Poncirus trifoliata Fruit & Rind

To avoid the mild nausea and sharp stomach pain that comes from consuming the raw trifoliate oranges in large quantities, it’s recommended to use the fruits and their rind as ingredients in your desserts instead.

The ripe fruits make good marmalade, and they add a sour taste to smoothies, jellies, and juices.


Trifoliate orange trees are small trees or large shrubs, depending on how you look at them. The sinewy branches and thorns make them ideal for hedges. The fruits ripen in the late fall and stay on the tree throughout the winter adding a bright color to the garden.