A tree that Juana Delgado grew from the seed of a grocery store orange has become a miracle on 15th Street.
This month, Delgado’s family has harvested an estimated 600 oranges from the tree she planted 15 years ago when she moved into the Habitat for Humanity home near North 15th Street and Colcord Avenue.
In recent weeks, the family made big jugs of orange juice, shared fruit with passing vagrants and sent their children door-to-door to give away large bags of juicy oranges.
The tree has defied the conventional wisdom that oranges can’t survive the Central Texas winter, when temperatures usually dip into the low 20s.
But the tree has soldiered on, even through a January 2010 cold snap when temperatures plummeted to 8 degrees.
“Many people said it’s not possible,” Delgado said in Spanish. “I say, ‘Come look. It’s possible.’ ”
Mark Barnett, a McLennan County master gardener and a landscaper by trade, said he has seen many people try to grow citrus trees they bought from big box stores, but the trees usually freeze and die.
“It’s very unusual for it to have survived that long without protection,” he said. “We’ve had some extremely cold winters that should have killed it.”
Delgado started the orange tree in a pot using a seed from an orange she bought at an H-E-B supermarket. Most table oranges are improved hybrid varieties and tend not to reproduce faithfully by seed, Barnett said.
But Delgado’s oranges turned out sweet and flavorful. Delgado has been harvesting a few oranges a year during the last decade but got her first big harvest two winters ago: A basket and a box full. In the 2011 drought, she kept the tree alive by watering it but ended up with only three oranges that season.
This year, she hit the jackpot. Her children and grandchildren climbed ladders to pick the fruit and filled six boxes with about 100 oranges each. More than 30 neighbors received bags of fruit, family members said.
“The girls were so excited when we started going to the neighbors to give them oranges,” said Araceli Delgado, a grown daughter of Juana’s. “At first they said, ‘We don’t want to go,’ but once they started, they kept coming back for more bags.”
For the Delgados, it was a chance to meet some of their new neighbors. Waco Community Development Corp. has built some 50 starter houses in the North 15th Street area during the last decade, and families with strollers have replaced the prostitutes that once paced the sidewalks.
Matt and Michelle Porter, who are raising two toddlers in a new two-story Waco CDC-built house two doors down, said they marvel at the orange tree.
“I thought, ‘How on earth is someone growing orange trees in Texas?’ ” said Michelle Porter, a Spanish teacher.
The Porters said they were grateful for the oranges, as well as the chance to meet a neighbor.
“Our kids love them,” said Matt Porter, who teaches religion at Baylor.
The story of how the Delgados became rooted on North 15th Street involved an act of faith even riskier than planting an orange seed.
Theirs was the first house Habitat for Humanity built on that street, which had fallen on hard times with dilapidated houses, prostitutes and a porn theater across the street at 15th and Colcord.
“We had that lot but we weren’t going to build on it, because it was such a violent, scary area,” said John Alexander, who started as Waco Habitat for Humanity’s executive director in 1997.
Then Mission Waco began investing in the area, cleaning up the street, locating its ministries in commercial buildings along North 15th Street and renovating the old porn theater as the Jubilee Theater.
Alexander followed suit, and decided Delgado’s home on North 15th Street would be the first Waco construction project he would oversee. Habitat soon built another house next door. Both were built with volunteer labor, including that of the new owners, and funded by the homeowners through a zero-interest loan.
Juana Delgado was a single mother of five from Zacatecas, Mexico, and the new home gave her family space and stability, said daughter Rose Delgado.
“I was 17 then, and we were living in South Waco in a house that was caving in,” she said.
Rose Delgado, now 32 and living at her mom’s house, is preparing to become a Habitat homeowner herself.
The Delgados said the neighborhood revitalization during the past 10 years has made it a safer and more pleasant place to live.
“It’s way better than it used to be,” Araceli Delgado said.
Alexander said the Delgados are a Habitat success story.
“They’ve fixed the house up and have done a nice job taking care of it,” he said.
Juana Delgado, who now works for a janitorial service, earned her green thumb working at Wolfe Wholesale Florist in the 1990s. She is nursing along pineapple, guava and avocado trees in pots on her porch, and she’s growing pears, figs, plums and apples in her small back yard.
“I helped her digging the holes for the trees,” Araceli Delgado said. “I said, ‘When these get bigger, this is going to be my H-E-B.’ ”