San Benito Lifestyle

NATURALLY: Your Orange Tree May be at Risk

A new disease puts citrus crops at risk

I just graduated from Boot Camp.

I didn’t get the T-shirt, and nature has pretty much taken care of the standard haircut already, but I had a great time, and I learned a lot.

I’m not talking about the Corps and Semper Fi and all that jazz, but about a daylong series of seminars that takes place every June, courtesy of the Monterey Bay Master Gardeners. Boot Camp is a chance to learn about a host of things relating to gardening.

I shamelessly promoted the event a few weeks ago, because I’d gone once before and found it tremendously beneficial. Then there’s the setting. The horticultural campus at Cabrillo College in Aptos is located at the top of campus. The area is beautifully landscaped – of course – and benches invite visitors to sit and enjoy a 180-degree panorama of Monterey Bay.

The day revolves around three 90-minute sessions, and participants pick from a menu for each.

My own menu included food preservation, beekeeping and home citrus growing. The session that most bears mentioning is about home-grown citrus.

As Anita Bryant once relentlessly reminded us, Florida is all about citrus. But Florida’s crop is almost exclusively used for juice. If you are holding an orange or lemon in your hand, chances are overwhelmingly large that it came from a California grove. But 60 percent of the citrus grown in California comes from home gardens.

Who cares? You should, because there’s a fly in the citrus ointment that bears noting.

Not long ago, an Asian citrus psyllid cropped up in a trap placed by the county agricultural commissioner’s office in Hollister. The psyllid is a tiny fly – about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.

By itself, it creates the kind of damage on citrus trees that you might associate with aphids.

But the psyllid has another role in this game, and one that could ultimately devastate the commercial citrus industry.

Thanks to a person who brought a cutting of citrus back home to Florida intending to graft it into a home garden tree, the psyllid arrived a few years ago, and with it arrived a disease called huanglongbing, HLB or citrus greening.  It’s a bacteria that the psyllid carries from one tree to the next.

Citrus greening was first found in Miami Beach, but it quickly spread throughout the state.

It’s been found again, in Los Angeles. A large quarantine zone extends through Southern California, and a comprehensive search turned up a tree in a front yard that had the disease. The tree was eliminated, and a statewide trapping and monitoring program was put into place.

Citrus greening infects tree roots, and the result is inevitably fatal to affected trees. But before they die, the trees yield misshapen, discolored fruit with an unappealing flavor.

Psyllids have been captured across Southern California, in San Jose and most recently, in Hollister, but none have tested positive for carrying the citrus greening bacteria so far.

If it gets loose in California, there are thousands of jobs and billions of dollars at stake. Some commercial interests already are lobbying to enact laws that would make it a crime to grow your own backyard oranges or lemons.

So what’s to do?  First, care for your own citrus trees. Healthy, robust trees are more resistant to pests. Take steps to keep ants out of your trees, because they “farm” pest species like aphids, scale and psyllids.

If you have a tree that exhibits signs of citrus greening, call the agriculture commissioner’s office ASAP.

Officials in Florida didn’t take the threat seriously. The grapefruit industry in Texas is withering behind inaction from the state. California is moving to get ahead of the plague. The last chapter of the story will be written by backyard growers like you and me.



Mark Paxton

I've been at this most of my life, and it still fascinates and challenges me. San Benito County can be a cruel mistress at times, but we can share in our love for her, even with all her quirks.