by Dr. William C. Welch, Professor & Landscape Horticulturist
Texas AgriLife Extension Service, College Station, TX

'Changsha' citrus is relatively hardy.

A close of 'Changsha' citrus.

Kumquats are almost
the hardiest of citrus for Texas.

'Republic of Texas' orange is relatively hardy
but somewhat seedy.

Satsuma 'Browns Select' is an excellent home citrus.

The lure of citrus as part of the home landscape goes back to my childhood when my grandmother planted orange and grapefruit seeds at her Yoakum, Texas, farm. It took the seedlings many years to produce and the fruit quality was neither outstanding nor dependable. I later learned that commercial citrus groves were produced on grafted stock in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Growing up in Houston there were always some citrus trees around but occasional severe freezes limited their use. While in high school I met the late Lynn Lowrey, now known as Texas' foremost native plant guru, but also knowledgeable about all areas of horticulture. Lynn spoke of an old 'Ichang' lemon tree in his mother's garden in Mansfield, LA. (northwestern LA). He also experimented with many other citrus including the 'Changsha' tangerine, known for its cold hardiness.

My fascination with citrus is still alive and well. When we moved into our current house, a garden home on a relatively small golf course lot in College Station, I included two 'Meiwa' kumquats, two 'Brown Select' satsumas and a large specimen of 'Changsha' tangerine moved from our previous homesite. That was 11 years ago and all of these plants are alive, well and productive. The unusual cold of last winter (2009-2010) resulted in considerable damage to the kumquats but the satsumas made it just fine. The largest specimen is loosely espaliered against a tall brick wall with a southern exposure which undoubtedly helped protect it. The kumquats also receive some wind protection but froze about halfway to the ground. As I write this in early November they have regrown nicely and have set a good fruit crop that will mature in the next month. The 10-12' tall specimen of 'Changsha' tangerine is thriving although the fruit crop is less than normal. I find that citrus tend to have large crops in alternate years.

I have also enjoyed growing citrus in a more exposed setting in rural Washington County. Since I focused on heirloom plants in the garden surrounding the mid-19th century Texas farmhouse I was pleased to get two 'Republic of Texas Oranges' from Treesearch Farms in Houston. Owner Heidi Sheesely isn't certain about the provenance of this orange but is confident it is old. I planted them close to the house in a potager garden. They began bearing heavily two years ago with dozens of large, bright orange, fairly seedy but sweet fruit. Last year they produced more than a bushel of fruit each. We made orange marmalade and enjoyed juicing some as well. The cold damaged the trees severely but after removing the dead wood in early spring they have recovered nicely. My wife Lucille's sister, Marge, has a large, seed grown ruby-red grapefruit tree at her home in Brenham. It produced a big crop of high quality fruit we enjoyed last winter and into the spring. The cold last winter damaged the tree, but it is recovering well, although it didn't bloom or set fruit this year.

Last year my satsumas, kumquats and tangerines were especially plentiful. Alyse, my 4 year old granddaughter, became attracted to the satsumas and kumquats. She is not normally an adventurous eater but loved picking the satsumas, eating one fresh and taking home a couple of extras to put in her school lunch. Her sister, Ella Diane, will celebrate her second birthday on December 1, and loves fruit above all other foods. Her current favorite is pears that my wife, Lucille, prepared from an abundant crop of 'Le Contes' at her place near Independence, TX. She is, however, carefully focusing her attention on the ripening satsumas and tangerines as they begin to color.

The nursery industry indicates a sharp increase in the sales of citrus plants. Their glossy, evergreen foliage, fragrant blossoms and tasty fruit fit into the trend of homeowners wanting to produce their own vegetables and fruit. Although they will eventually outgrow all but the largest pots citrus has always been grown in containers. 'Orangeries' were elegant greenhouse-like structures and a part of estates like Versailles in France and many of the southern plantation homes such as Mt. Vernon. Large specimens were carefully moved outside during favorable weather but moved back indoors during cold periods. Citrus fruit has been considered an elegant and upscale addition to the diet even before the Roman era. The Spanish brought citrus with them to the new world in the early 1500's where it thrived in Mexico and the Gulf Coast forming the beginning of our commercial production in those areas.

Citrus grow best in sunny locations having well-drained soil. Most are available grafted onto trifoliate orange rootstock which appears to keep the plants semi-dwarf and a bit more cold hardy. White flies and scale insects can be controlled with dormant oil sprays applied according to label instructions during the cool seasons. Pruning should focus on removal of dead limbs and shaping as needed.

Other citrus I have grown and enjoyed include 'Meyer' lemons which I have grown in pots. They aren't as cold hardy as the satsumas or kumquats but are handsome and fairly productive in pots. I have also enjoyed thornless Mexican limes but continue to lose them if I don't take them indoors during cold spells. Like most gardeners I am fascinated with plants that tend to be a little out of our natural range. Thankfully, some citrus has enough cold resistance to be useful as well as beautiful additions to Central Texas gardens.

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