Many homeowners in Florida want to grow citrus trees and pick their own fresh fruit in season. Citrus are subtropical to tropical trees that cannot tolerate freezing. A few cold-tolerant citrus varieties can be grown in Central, North and West Florida. All citrus need full sun (more than six hours a day) adequate water, fertilizer, weeding and some disease and pest control.
Gardeners should be aware that the Giant Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar feeds only on leaves of citrus family plants. Its natural host plants are Wild Lime (Zanthoxylum fagra), a shrub, and Hercules Club (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis), a large deciduous tree. Male Giant Swallowtails have a wingspan up to 7.4 inches, while females are smaller, about 6.9 inches. The Giant Swallowtail’s accepted scientific name is now Heraclides cresphontes if readers want to research the species online. Let the butterfly caterpillars live — your citrus trees will replace eaten leaves. Butterflies help pollinate citrus blossoms for fruit production.
Sweet orange, citron, lemon, lime and pomelo were introduced from Spain to Florida by 1565. The University of Florida evaluates citrus at NFREC, its research station in Quincy, North Florida, Zone 8. Cold-hardy citrus trees are grown on Swingle or trifoliate orange rootstocks. Popular varieties include:
- Satsumas, the most-cold hardy citrus, ripen between October and December. Fruit must be snipped to avoid tearing the thin peel.
- Navels, orange- and red-fleshed, seedless sweet oranges, ripen in late December. They can be eaten fresh or juiced. A well-tended 12-year old navel tree may produce 400 pounds of fruit per season. Navels rarely get citrus scab diseases.
- Temple oranges and the almost-seedless honey tangerines called Murcotts are hybrids between tangerine and sweet orange. The Murcott ‘Tango’ has small, easily peeled fruit but ripens in January, so is at risk from freezes. Murcott is susceptible to citrus scab, an Alternaria fungus, that can be managed with a fungicide spray program.
- Mandarin hybrid ‘Sugar Belle,’ a cross between Clementine and Minneola, is better than the older cultivar ‘Honey Belle’ because Sugar Belle is more cold-hardy and ripens earlier, from November to December. Bell-shaped fruit is acidic, has high sugar content and more seeds when grown in a mixed grove for pollination.
- Tangelo or honeybell, (Citrus x tangelo), a cross between tangerine and grapefruit, is sweet, juicy and fairly cold hardy. ‘Orlando’ and ‘Minneola’ are popular and readily available varieties. Both grow into large trees, so need space. For a good crop, tangelos need other citrus nearby, as tangelos are not good self-pollinating hybrids. ‘Temple,’ Sunburst’ and ‘Fallglo’ can be planted as good pollinators.
- Lemons and limes are acid citrus fruit with lower pH that are best suited to South Florida. However, ‘Meyer’ lemon on hardy rootstock is a more cold-tolerant variety. Meyer’s large fruit ripens between November to March. It is a bushy tree that can be grown in a patio pot and brought indoors during morning freezes in Central Florida.
- Grocery stores sell ‘Tahitian limes’ because tropical ‘Key Lime’ is no longer grown commercially in Florida. Tahitian lime is less tart and slightly larger than the rounder ‘Key Lime.’ In South Florida, dooryard ‘Key Lime’ may have fruit year-round.
- Kumquats, Fortunella crassifolia, can be grown throughout Florida. Very cold-hardy, Kumquats are eaten whole, peel included. ‘Meiwa’ and ‘Nagami’ varieties have different shapes — one round, the other oval.
- One grapefruit tree bears more than enough fruit for a family. Yellow-fruited ‘Duncan’ has seeds but great taste. ‘Redblush’ and ‘Flame’ have red flesh and are seedless. If you plant one of each, you will have fruit to share with friends and neighbors.
Reliable citrus information can be found online at the following sites:
Jane Weber is a professional gardener and consultant. Semi-retired, she grows thousands of native plants. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 352-249-6899.