Orange is the Old Red
December 14, 2022
By Karen Maxwell, Horticultural Specialist
Upon introduction to the New World, oranges became an important symbol of Christmas greetings and the tradition of citrus for the holidays is still largely advertised here in South Florida. Back in Mina Edison’s Day, there was no warmer wish to send for the holidays than a basket of fresh Florida citrus. Early correspondence from Mina hinted that she believed she may have been too generous and instructed caretakers to maintain a larger portion of her crop in subsequent years. Instead of sending that box of fruit this holiday season, try growing your own citrus or gifting a citrus tree to someone special!
Upon introduction to the New World, oranges became an important symbol of Christmas greetings and the tradition of citrus for the holidays is still largely advertised here in South Florida. Back in Mina Edison’s day, there was no warmer wish to send for the holidays
As early as 1865, Fort Myers hosted major citrus production and by 1917, the Edisons were quite involved in growing and harvesting a variety of citrus trees—exclusive of mangos, which are not citrus, but in the cashew family. Like the Edisons, citrus is among the first plants new residents often add to their Florida gardens. With the exception of the trial garden located at the former Ford property, visitors to the Estates must imagine the Edison property of the 1930s surrounded by sweetly scented citrus groves. What happened?
Citrus, native to China, was introduced to the New World by Christopher Columbus in the 1400s. Shortly thereafter, the ancient Italian artist Bicci di Lorenzo’s painting “The Miracle of the Dowries” captures St. Nicholas tossing “three gold balls” into the stockings of the three unwed daughters of a poor farmer. As the celebration of Christmas transitioned from a strictly religious event to one with a gift focus, oranges (left in stockings) came to symbolize the gold balls gifted by St. Nicholas.
Throughout Europe and much later in the United States, the idea of citrus during the winter became a symbol of prosperity and well-being. Many Victorian era homes featured winter greenhouses known as “Orangeries” that kept the owners’ trees safe from cold and frost. The availability of winter citrus was enjoyed at Christmastime and featured in decorations, used with cloves to scent rooms, and finally as a thoughtful and practical gift.
The early citrus groves of the Edisons included nearly 100 grapefruit trees, 60 oranges of different varieties, assorted lemon, and tangerines – all were thriving in 1917. They would later add kumquat, lime, and citron. Citrus was used in many decorations at the time, from clove-studded pomanders to ornaments for wreaths and garland both here in Fort Myers in 1929 and shipped back to Glenmont, the Edison’s primary residence in New Jersey, where their holiday traditions originated.
The Edisons endured many challenges growing their citrus trees that we, as modern caretakers, face every day. The weather was unpredictable, they contended with unexpected freezes, too much rain, droughts, hurricanes and let’s not overlook our “moon-dust” soils, which unless amended, is not a hospitable growing medium for nutrient-hungry citrus.
In the 1930s post-depression years, Mina Edison struggled alongside many people, and with finances tight she pursued several cash crops to help ease the financial burden of maintaining their winter home. She is noted as reminding the caretaker(s) to keep an eye on regular fertilizing of her citrus groves. She regularly shipped cartons of citrus and guava jelly (guava is not a citrus either) back to Glenmont, NJ to be used as gifts and later lamented that she was gifting too much citrus.
So, back to the earlier question of what happened to the Edisons’ citrus groves? In the early 2000s a disease called Citrus Greening or HLB, arrived in our groves and over the last two decades has decimated our industry in Florida and throughout the world. As the University of Florida and the Florida Citrus Industry arduously look for a solution, we, as homeowners, can still grow a tree or two, as long as we re-frame our approach.
Yes! You can have a producing citrus tree but let’s think of growing citrus as a perennial and move away from the notion of having a long-lived tree and celebrate the holidays with your very own home-grown citrus!
As a Lee County Extension Certified Citrus Home Advisor and having worked with citrus specialists from the University of Florida for many years, along with tending to the handful of citrus trees we currently grow on the former Edison property, I would like to give some tips for growing a small, successful citrus tree.
Growing potted citrus will provide a greater opportunity for success where soil conditions are more easily controlled. Choose a smaller fruit such as Meiwa or Nagami Kumquat, Calamondin, Lemon (Meyer), Lime (Persian or Key), or Limequat (a cross between lime and kumquat). Novelty citrus with several species on one plant, will be short lived and one species will dominate and although it’s cute, it won’t last.
One of the most successful varieties that seems to do well, even when infected with Citrus Greening is Calamondin. As seen in the photo, our calamondin, growing outside the Caretaker’s Cottage is full of young fruit and the evidence of the blotchy mottle is clearly seen on the leaves. While not an orange, calamondin is a citrus and packs a ton of Vitamin C. It has a bright orange, sweet, edible thin peel and very tart interior. It is wonderful in nut breads, marmalade, and as an infusion in liquors.
Start by purchasing certified stock – a tag on the tree will indicate that the plant has been grown in a healthy atmosphere and has been inspected by the State of Florida – these inspections are only valid for one year from the date of inspection.
Plant your citrus in a large enough pot that allows for additional root growth. Ideally, start with a five-gallon pot and use a good-quality, sterile potting soil. Bring the soil level in the pot to just below the flare of the tree, or where it is grafted, as most citrus trees are. The very first roots should be just about visible at the top of the soil. Place your newly planted tree where it will get six to eight hours of sunlight a day. A small amount of later afternoon shade is acceptable.
As mentioned earlier, a successful citrus crop will require lots of nutrients. One of the primary conditions of Citrus Greening can be likened to a hardening of the arteries, where the tree cannot get sufficient nutrients up through its roots and trunk to the branches, where the flowers and fruit are borne.
Regularly feed your tree with a slow-release citrus food in a concentration of 8-8-8 or 10-10-10 with micronutrients. Most citrus typically has three periods of flush when the new leaves come out and the most important flush is when the tree produces new leaves, flowers, and the new fruits. When these flushes occur, this is the ideal time to provide a foliar feeding – where additional nutrition of Zinc, Manganese, and Iron (called micro-nutrients) is literally sprayed onto the fresh, new young leaves – these leaves can absorb more of the nutrients because they do not yet have the waxy cuticle coating of older leaves.
Citrus trees require well-drained soil or a pot and plenty of water – generally two inches a week. If the soil is dry below your second knuckle, your tree is too dry, and this will be evidenced by the cupping of leaves. Conversely, leaving citrus in a constantly wet soil will quickly lead to root rot.
Always be vigilant for the presence of pests, such as aphids, (if you see ants travelling up and down your tree trunk, follow them to the aphids), whiteflies, scale, etc. Citrus is also the host for the Giant Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar often called an “orange dog.” Become familiar with their telltale chewing so you won’t inadvertently apply a pesticide. For this reason, and because it is an edible plant, stay away from harmful pesticides when managing insects. We don’t want to kill helpful ladybug larvae, lacewing bugs and other good pest predators. Companion planting will also help with pest control: dill and fennel attract lacewings and ladybugs which eat aphids and the scent of basil or marigold is distasteful to many pests. Most citrus pests, except the citrus psyllid that causes citrus greening, can be managed with an organic approach. Keep in mind, citrus greening is inevitable – learn to live with it and manage your tree for five to 10 years and await the day that a citrus variety immune to the pest is discovered!