By Kay Whatley, Editor
Did you know that we have, for over a decade, been losing vast orange groves in Florida? Orange trees have been dying in Florida, acres at a time. Citrus Greening disease is the culprit, and it’s spreading.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, “Citrus Greening (Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus) is one of the most serious citrus plant diseases in the world.” Universities and commercial groups have been investing immense resources to develop new commercial citrus varieties which can fight off or never be infected by this fatal disease.
One potential opportunity is to develop hardy varieties of citrus which can grow in areas where the insect which spreads the disease, called a citrus psyllid, doesn’t thrive. While we may think of citrus as a tropical phenomenon, it originates in mountainous, inland regions of China, and only after centuries of cultivation, breeding, and agricultural development did it become farmed in quantities in tropical and subtropical climates the way we know it today.
Those ancestral citrus trees, including the “trifoliate orange” (Poncirus trifoliata) are incredibly hardy plants, and can tolerate climates with harsh winters, although the fruit they produce isn’t palatable. The USDA has in the past developed numerous varieties of citrus which are almost as edible as the citrus we know and love, but which share hardy traits with those ancestral citrus. With the boom in citrus production in Florida, Arizona, and California, those efforts slowed, but there is renewed interest around the world in developing hardy citrus of all kinds, from pomelos and grapefruit to sweet satsuma mandarins and valencias.
Even without dedicated breeding, genetic variations can occasionally result in trees which produce great fruit and withstand heavy winters — one tangerine tree planted from seed in South Carolina was found to be able to withstand freezes down to 0ºF, and today is propagated by hardy citrus enthusiasts and known as the “Juanita Tangerine” after the woman who cultivated it.
Hardy citrus can survive in North Carolina — choose to plant a few trees in your yard or turn a farm into a citrus grove. We might someday (soon) see lines of citrus trees planted along the beautiful back roads and country ways of the Old North State, and your backyard could become the breeding ground for the next Juanita Tangerine planted from seed, or perhaps something even more wonderful.
Interested in becoming a citrus grower? The annual Southeastern Citrus Expo is an eagerly-awaited destination for hardy citrus growers from around the United States and even international growers, and this year it is being held in North Carolina! Attend and learn about how to grow oranges and more, or purchase a few seeds, trees, or even fruit from these fascinating hardy citrus plants to get started. The Expo is November 22-23, 2019. and will be held at the Brunswick County Cooperative Extension Service, 25 Referendum Drive, Bolivia, NC.
Event information and updates may be found on the Southeastern Citrus Expo Facebook at www.facebook.com/SoutheasternCitrusExpo.
Additional background and reporting by Juli Mallett.
Ed. Note: See also this Huff Post article on Florida palm bronzing disease, another disease causing issues for Florida.