As citrus greening spreads west through Texas and on to California, a cure could be found in the heartland of the Sunshine State. Surrounded by a grove of sickly trees stricken with disease stands a solitary lush orange tree that could possibly be the silver bullet to the blight afflicting the once $10 billion Florida citrus industry.
This special tree, dubbed The Mother Tree, was developed by researchers at the University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center through conventional breeding. The University of Florida has the largest research center in the world that’s devoted to a single crop. While not specifically immune to citrus greening, the Mother Tree shows remarkable tolerance, much like how the polio vaccine works, but for citrus trees.
Researchers were astounded to find that the tree is actually infected with the citrus greening disease; a diagnosis it has had for five years. However, it doesn’t have the usual symptoms. Instead of the typical misshapen, green, and bitter fruit from an infected tree, this tree produces standard, healthy fruit. The tree has yielded roughly five or six 90-pound boxes over the past two years, which the research team has been giving to friends as Christmas gifts.
This could possibly be the end for the near-unstoppable plague that the United State’s citrus industry has dreamed of. In Florida, where the disease began and is still most prevalent, more than 70 percent of citrus production has been lost. Many farmers have had to switch their orchards away from oranges, the state’s leading crop. These new genetically hardy trees could reclaim much of the lost orange yield, revitalizing the industry and bringing back thousands of lost citrus jobs.
While results have been promising, further testing and selective breeding are required before these special trees can be made commercially available. Still, this is a huge jump forward from five years ago, when many questioned if a permanent cure was even possible. Since that point, many temporary or short term solutions have arisen, each with varying degrees of success and cost. With how new this generic research is, it will still be a long time before a permanent solution can be implemented.