MERRITT ISLAND — Like raspberries with your orange? Like vitamin C with your “milkshake?”
Get nostalgic over old things? Old tastes? Old trees?
Well, there’s a treasure hunt going on in the state of Florida that involves all of the above. It used to be that orange juice in Florida was referred to as “liquid gold.” It probably still is, at times, but the industry is definitely smaller than it used to be — at least in Central Florida — and with the disappearance of so many small growers, many varieties of fruit have also disappeared.
That’s where the treasure hunt comes in.
Peter Chaires is executive director of a non-profit organization called the New Varieties Development & Management Corporation. Formed in 2005, the group serves the citrus industry by facilitating the licensing of growing rights for the many new, patented varieties of fruit. But Chaires does something else: When he hears about old, special and seemingly lost varieties, he hunts them down. He talks them up at meetings, and sometimes he gets lucky.
As Chaires says, “I speak to a lot of grower groups … I whine a lot.”
Right now, some exotic blood oranges are at the top of Chaires’ wish list, but his most recent prize finding is some naval oranges found, of all places, at Kennedy Space Center. The variety is called Crisafulli, after the family that developed it, and it has the reputation for high-yield and high-quality – a potential boon to growers in Florida.
But that’s in the future. Right now the Crisafulli trees are babies, being nurtured at a facility in Polk County. The parent trees, if still alive, are in a dying grove on Merritt Island, in the KSC launch area.
The cuttings were collected last fall. Oddly enough, the 40-acre grove has been an indirect casualty of post 9-11 national security. As Chaires explained, when the space center was in the planning stages years ago, it was quickly realized that the landowners — many of whom had farmed citrus for generations — would be more agreeable to selling if they had the option of holding long-term leases on the land. When the leases came up for renewal, post 9-11, the feds decided to end the lease program.
That meant that the groves were no longer maintained – not a problem in some areas, but a major problem on the island. Chaires says that when he and his associate arrived at the grove last fall, there were water marks on the trees, pretty high up. As it is, the groves were never pumped out following the various storm surges that the island has experienced, and Chaires was lucky just to find branches that were still alive.
The exercise was successful overall and the baby trees, as Chaires puts it, “are going through the bud wood process.”
As for the blood oranges, that story is more complex. Chaires hears tales of an experimental blood orange grove in Maitland, bulldozed for developers; tales of blood oranges with strong hints of raspberry or strawberry. He knows of a homeowner who, upon hearing that some exotic blood oranges were to be bulldozed, took cuttings and grew her own.
Chaires swears that the orange juice from one of the trees tastes just like strawberry milkshake. Citrus trees do mutate. The mutation could be a whole tree or it could be on a single branch of a tree. If the result is something desirable and if the grower notices, then he’ll likely propagate cuttings.
With the multitudes of small growers in a Florida long gone, that meant multiple local varieties of fruit, as well as multiple sources for some of the more widespread heritage varieties. Most of the small growers are gone, but Chaires figures some of the fruit is still out there: trees that somehow survived the multiple freezes of the 1980s, or varieties that were rescued from developers’ bulldozers by knowing bystanders.
Sometimes the key to survival was, literally, off the wall. At Showalter Flying Service at Orlando Executive Airport, Bob Showalter remembers picking grapefruit off the tree in the planter bin built into the side of the old hangar. The tree (a white, seeded Duncan) is still there, and the citrus person Showalter called about it was interested enough to come and take cuttings.
The bottom line is that if you think you have a special citrus tree, you may be right. If it’s a blood orange, Chaires cautions that the anthocyanin that gives blood oranges their characteristic red flesh (and distinctive flavors) is activated by cold weather, so if you pick a blood orange before cold weather, it’s just an orange.
Chaires suggests that the persons to call, if you think you do have a special tree, are Fred Gmitter or Bill Castle, both associated with the University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred. The Center’s number is 863-956-1151. The professors’ emails are email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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