The time to start planting has finally come! I finished installing the irrigation system, we had a big soaking rain last week that softened the ground, and temperatures are slowly starting to come down. The perfect conditions for planting some trees! The boys grabbed their shovels and did their best to help out by digging, squishing chince bugs, and watering. They worked really hard, and I'm so proud of both of them. This will be their orchard too, and I know they'll be so proud knowing that they helped get it started.
I was thinking about how I could photograph and document the new trees as they grow, when I had a really cool idea. The other day I found my old iPhone with a cracked screen just sitting in a drawer. The camera still worked fine, and I realized that if I could position it somewhere dry and figure out the timing, I could use it to make a time lapse video of the trees growing throughout the year. Conveniently, I found a time lapse photography app that does just that, so setting everything up was really easy. I set up the phone on a mini tripod in a window overlooking the back yard, and set the app to take one picture everyday at 1:00 pm. If I can resist messing with it, it will be really interesting to see how it turns out.
The Dekopon, marketed in the US as Sumo, is a legendary seedless hybrid between the Kiyomi tangor and a ponkan mandarin. It's unique flavor is all the rage in Japan, and famed fruit journalist David Karp regards it as one of the best citrus fruits he's ever tasted. Adding to the hype, they're really hard to find in the US, and very expensive when you do. To further complicate things, the rights to the budwood are exclusively owned by a family in California (which is under citrus quarantine anyway), so there's no way for home growers like me to buy or graft our own Dekopon trees. All we can do is buy the fruit in the stores when we can find it, and hope that we're one of the very lucky few that finds a Dekopon seed. I had never even seen one before, and just figured that the Dekopons, like the mythical Red Nules, weren't in my future.
The other week when I was at my local HEB, I was amazed to find Sumos hiding in a little side display by the bananas. I don't remember how much they were, but they weren't cheap, and they looked absolutely terrible. The peels were bumpy and puffy, typical of overripe citrus, and many were clearly bruised up and battered. Still, not being able to resist, I bought 10 of them and brought them home in the hopes that I might find a seed. When citrus is called "seedless", that doesn't always mean 100% seedless, and occasionally seeds can still occur. I peeled and carefully examined the segments from all 10 of the fruits, but unfortunately didn't find any viable seeds. I found some very tiny, immature seeds, but nothing that I could plant and expect to germinate. Oh well, you win some, you lose some. The fruit is too expensive to keep trying, and even though there are many people selling Dekopon seeds on eBay, I don't trust any of them.
Seeds or no seeds, I really like the Dekopon. The fruits are round with a pronounced bump on one end like a Minneola tangelo, and are very easy to peel. Inside, they have a hollow core surrounded by the segments, which are in turn encased in very thin, easy to eat membranes. The flesh is very juicy and soft, again very similar to a Minneola tangelo, but slightly firmer in texture. The flavor is very sweet with just the right amount of acid to balance it, and reminds me of the citrus drink Sunny D. I have to agree with Mr. Karp, the fruit has an excellent flavor. They definitely won the approval of the boys, who gobbled up all they could get. If they're that good from HEB, just imagine how good they would be right off the tree!
Collecting pollen from Wekiwa tangelo flower.
Ever since John Panzarella told me the story of how he tried to breed a pink lemonade fruit by crossing a Ruby Red grapefruit and an Ujukitsu, I've wanted to try to make a controlled cross of my own. I've planted several open pollinated seeds, but until now I've never tried contolled pollination. It turns out its much more difficult than I thought. Almost all of my citrus trees are blooming right now, so I thought this weekend would be the perfect time to try it. First, I needed to select a pollen donor and a seed parent. Not all citrus produce hybrids, so my choice of potential seed parents was limited to those varieties I have that produce monoembryonic, zygotic seeds: Pummelos, Meyer Lemon, and Ujukitsu. I've never been impressed with pummelo hybrids (like Oro Blanco), and I didn't want a sour fruit, so I chose the Ujukitsu, aka the "lemonade fruit".
For the pollen donor, I could use any citrus variety that was currently in bloom. I decided to use the Wekiwa tangelo because it is very delicious, is a complex hybrid itself (grapefruit x Sampson tangelo), and under the right conditions has pink flesh. Who knows? Maybe a Wekiwa x Ujukitsu hybrid would produce the pink lemonade fruit John was trying for? Even if it didn't, they're both delicious fruits, and so I would hope a cross would also be tasty. I found a sharp pair of tweezers, a small mason jar, and got to work collecting pollen from the Wekiwa's flowers. I couldn't shake or disloge the pollen easily, so I just used the tweezers to remove the stamen and anthers and drop them in the jar. I collected the pollen from a total of four or five flowers, and then headed over to the Ujukitsu.
I picked out a nice set of the Ujukitsu's flowers to try to pollinate, removed all the nearby unopened buds, and tried to emasculate the flowers so that they wouldn't pollinate themselves. This proved to be very difficult. The stamens hold the pollen so that it faces the flower's stigma, and the surfaces of both are sticky. Every time I would try to remove the stamen with the tweezers, I would accidentally cause some Ujukitsu pollen to stick to the pistil! After the second flower I gave up. I borrowed one of Dr. Wife's paintbrushes and used it to liberally apply Wekiwa pollen to the Ujukitsu stigmas. Once I was finished, I covered the flowers with a mesh bag to prevent any further pollination by insects. Hopefully these flowers will set fruit this year, and will produce some hybrid seeds. The flowers could have been pollinated by me using the Wekiwa pollen, or been self pollinated. I'll need to plant several seeds, let them grow for a little while, and look for any signs of a hybrid plant, such as unusual leaf shape.
Moro Blood Orange
Blood oranges are a unique group of delicious citrus native to the coasts of Italy, Spain, and Morocco, and have long been prized for their blood-red juice and unique flavor. Their distinctive coloration is due to the presence of the flavonoid pigment anthocyanin, which is also found in pomegranates, blueberries, and cranberries. There are other varieties of red citrus such as the Ruby and Vaniglia Sanguino that are sometimes called blood oranges, but their coloration comes from the carotenoid pigment lycopene, which also gives Cara Cara navel oranges, red grapefruits, and tomatoes their red color. I realize not everyone will agree with me, but I only consider those varieties that contain anthocyanin pigmentation to be true blood oranges, not those colored by lycopene. After all, we don't call Ruby Red grapefruits 'blood grapefruits' do we?
Another notable difference between the red oranges and the true blood oranges is the way in which the flesh is colored. The true blood oranges often have light orange flesh with splotches or streaks of deep red 'blood', while in lycopene-pigmented citrus the flesh is usually uniformly colored. Vaniglia Sanguino is described as a sweet, but acidless orange, which means I probably won't like it. To me, really low acid varieties of citrus almost always taste insipid and lack flavor. The Ruby blood orange is reported to have good flavor when grown in "hot interior districts", but only develops red coloration under favorable conditions. Beaumont citrus grower Mr. Texas says that Ruby has never developed any coloration for him. I tasted a Ruby this weekend that was a good tasting fruit, but nothing spectacular, and it had no coloration.
The three most common true blood oranges you're likely to see at Houston area nurseries and fruit tree sales are Moro, Sanguinelli, and Tarocco. Opinions on which of these cultivars is the best varies greatly, although everyone seems to agree that Moro is most likely to develop good coloration. Lake Jackson citrus expert John Panzarella believes Tarocco to be the sweetest and best tasting of the three. He also reports that Sanguinelli is tight skinned, and the fruit tends to split there's a heavy rain following a dry period. Beaumont citrus grower Mr. Texas prefers the taste of Sanguinelli, and believes that Tarocco is too late ripening. I have tasted spectacular Sanguinellis in Beaumont, terrific Taraccos in Lake Jackson, and magnificent Moros in The Woodlands, and it seems location can have a significant effect on the quality of the fruit.
I believe this is because blood oranges typically develop their characteristic red coloration in response to cool night-time temperatures, so generally speaking, the farther north you are the bloodier your blood oranges will be. For example, at the recent Upper Gulf Coast Citrus Show I had the unique opportunity to taste all 3 varieties, all grown by Butch Roden of Clute, Texas. Clute is 85 miles south of me, right on the coast, and probably doesn't get nearly as chilly as my yard does. None of his fruit had developed good color, but they were still pretty tasty. In contast, my friend Andrew is growing Moros in The Woodlands, and some of the fruit from his trees are almost entirely red.
As I mentioned, I have tasted all three varieties, and personally find it very difficult to pick a favorite. To me the Moro has the most distinctive flavor. For lack of a better way to describe it, I think it tastes like a good sweet orange that has been spiked with a little bit of grape juice. This unique flavor, combined with the fact that it develops the best color and ripens earlier than Tarocco, makes the Moro the best choice for my area of northwest Houston in my opinion. To test this theory, I grafted all three blood orange cultivars onto one tree last year, and hopefully I'll have some fruit to show you before too long. Merry Citrus!
2012 Open House and Citrus Tasting
This weekend Boy #1 and I made the annual pilgrimage to John Panzarella's Open House and Citrus Tasting in Lake Jackson, Texas. Every year for many years, John has opened his amazing backyard to anyone interested in learning about growing citrus trees, and provides 50+ varieties of citrus to see and taste, all for free. He also sells fruit and citrus trees, some of which can't be found anywhere else, like his giant Ujukitsu and lemon-flavored pummelo seedling. If you missed the Open House, but would still like to visit, John teaches grafting classes at his home every February. Details can be found on his website here. I first learned to graft at one of John's classes, and I think it is well worth the trip for anyone who is interested in learning to propagate fruit trees.
The fruit was fantastic this year. I had to keep a sharp eye on Boy #1, so I didn't get to try all the varieties, and I didn't get to take many pictures or tasting notes. Of the fruit I did get to sample, I was very impressed with the Wekiwa tangelo, the Chandler pummelo, and the Fairchild mandarin. I was not particularly impressed by the Bloomsweet grapefruit, but I think it may not really reach it's peak until closer to Christmas. Boy #1 didn't care about the citrus at all, he was too busy chasing John's 'pets'. I also noted that the Thomasville citrangequat greatly resembles a fruit that I saw at Bill Schneider's that he calls the 'Devine lime'. I have suspected that the Devine lime was actually the Thomasville citrangequat based on written descriptions of the fruit, and now that I've seen it in person, I think the mystery may be solved.
I brought approximately 30 frozen miracle fruit berries for people to try, which is always a big hit. I wish I had been able to bring more, but that was all I had left after the two tastings I held earlier this year. Everyone that got to try them seemed to really enjoy their taste-twisting effect, and I did my best to explain to the crowd how to take care of the plants. I think John might owe me a commission on all the miracle fruit plants he sold! After seeing how much people enjoyed getting to try miracle fruit alongside such a wide variety of citrus, I'm definitely going to set aside a good portion of next year's miracle berry crop for John's next open house event.
Woodlands citrus grower Scott Johnsgard brought a big box of fruit that he had tried to enter in the Upper Gulf Coast Citrus Show, but that had been temporarily lost in transit. Much to my excitement, he also brought a fruit from his Valentine Pummelo Hybrid tree. The Valentine is a very new release from the University of California Riverside citrus variety collection, and as far as I know this was the first time anyone had tasted one in Texas. The fruit is reported to be a large, red-fleshed hybrid between a Siamese Sweet pummelo, and a Dancy tangerine x Ruby blood orange cross. Its called Valentine because it ripens around Valentine's Day, and because it resembles a heart when cut length-wise. We cut open the fruit to find juicy, seedy, yellow-colored flesh, with only the faintest traces of red pigmentation. The taste was insipid and unpleasant, with very little sweetness, and no acidity or flavor. It was watery, bland, and disappointing.
John said that he thought the fruit just wasn't ripe yet, but I'm not so sure. The peel was fully colored, and Scott said that it had dropped from the tree. I've tried many fruits at all stages of development in my yard, and typcially citrus fruits gain sugar and lose acidity as they ripen. When they're over ripe they have almost no acid, and can taste sweet, but insipid. If this fruit was still maturing, it had no acidity to lose. I'm personally not a big fan of very low-acid citrus like the cocktail and golden grapefruits (actually pummelo-mandarin hybrids), and I'm having second thoughts about planting this variety. John has one Valentine fruit on a very small tree that he is going to wait until February to try. I can't wait to see how the fruit quality in February will compare with this initial tasting.
Congratulations to Chris and James!
Last Thursday was a very busy citrus day for me. I took off from work early, and headed down to the annual Upper Gulf Coast Citrus Show, sponsored by the Galveston County Master Gardeners. There were 182 entries from area growers, of all types ranging from mandarins, lemons, oranges, grapefruit, clusters, etc. The entry that won 'Best in Show' was a Rio Red grapefruit grown by Chris Anastas of Santa Fe, Texas. It was a truly beautiful fruit, no blemishes, deep red pigmentation, and very sweet with outstanding flavor. Just like last year, the entries were displayed on paper plates for everyone to see and taste. Last year I spent way too much time taking photographs of all the fruit, and not nearly enough time writing down my impressions of the different varieties.
I really tried to do a better job this time around, but there was just so much to see, so many varieties to taste, and so many great people to talk to that I still didn't take as many notes as I should have. Unfortunately, there were only two pummelo entries this year, and one of them wasn't even a pummelo, but an unidentified Oro Blanco. I was hoping to be able to taste Mato Buntan and Reinking, but no such luck. Here are some of my impressions from this year's tasting:
Getting ready to propagate!
I have to admit that even though I feel that I have become proficient at cleft grafting and bark inlay grafting, I still feel a sense of trepidation when it comes to t-budding. T-budding is perhaps the most common grafting method used to propagate citrus trees, and according to the Texas A&M Aggie Horticulture website, it usually has a 98% success rate when done properly. The basic technique is pretty simple: You make an incision in the rootstock like an inverted letter T, insert your bud, and wrap it up with parafilm until it heals. Once the bud is healed, you unwrap it, "force" the bud, and the result is a grafted citrus tree.
Part of the reason I am not as practiced in t-budding is that I rarely graft for the purpose of propagating new trees. Usually my goal is to graft another variety onto one of my established trees, so I usually use the cleft or the bark inlay grafting methods. The first grafting technique I learned was the cleft graft, so I'm very comfortable with it. I have used the cleft graft on my apples, pears, plums, peaches, citrus, pomegranates, and figs, so I've had a lot of practice, and on more than just citrus trees. Bark inlay grafting is essentially just like t-budding, but done on a larger scale. With bark inlay grafting you insert a small budstick, not just a single bud. I've also had a lot of practice grafting with the bark inlay method, so I think that with a little t-budding practice, I should be able to become comfortable with it as well (or at least passable).
The trifoliate rootstocks I planted in the tall pots last year have grown very well, although not all have reached grafting size. Rootstocks with the same approximate thickness of a pencil are ideal. Even though it was late October and the rootstocks were a little small, a quick test showed that the bark of the rootstocks was still slipping, so I decided it was time for a little t-budding practice. I decided to try to propagate six trees of three varieties: Pong Koa, Cara Cara Navel Orange, and Ujukitsu. Following Texas A&M's instructions I carefully made the inverted T incisions, trimmed the buds from scionwood, and and carefully slid them in. Working as delicately as possible I wrapped them up with parafilm, and began the long two weeks of waiting to see if the buds would take, or if my surgical skills needed further refinement.
I learned a couple of side lessons during this experiment. First of all, the potting soil I used in the tall pots had compacted significantly, which made it difficult to cut the t-shaped incision at the best location on the rootstock. I have since learned that many growers cut their potting soil with pine bark nuggets or cedar chips to keep the potting mix from compacting, acidify it slightly, and to ensure good drainage. In addition, using 50% nuggets or chips significantly lowers the cost. Second, I learned that old parafilm can become brittle, and I found myself having to unwrap a good bit of the more weathered tape on the outside of the to get to the good stretchy stuff within. I also only had 1-inch wide tape, which was kind of awkward to use on such small rootstocks. I'll order some half-inch budding tape before I try again.
Finally, after two weeks had passed, I carefully unwrapped the grafts. Success! Of my six attempts, four were successful. One of the Pong Koas and one of the Cara Caras didn't make it. I realize that's only a 66% success rate, but considering how small the rootstocks were an the fact that I'm still learning, I'm very pleased. I really should have done it earlier in the year though. Now that the days are shorter and the trifoliate is going dormant, the buds probably won't begin to grow until next spring. That's ok, they'll be safe and warm in the greenhouse until then. I don't have any plans to start propagating trees on a large scale, but its nice to be able to share varieties with friends, and to be able to graft budwood from my experimental seedlings onto trifoliate. I've got 40 more rootstocks to practice with when they start growing again next spring!
Sarawak and Hirado Buntan Pummelos
When it comes to pummelos, I don't know if I should pronounce it "pummel-o", or "pom-ell-o". Lake Jackson citrus expert John Panzarella says "pummel-o", so I do too. I've seen the word spelled a variety of ways (pummelo, pumelo, pomelo), and I've also seen them referred to as Chinese grapefruit, shaddocks, and pompelmous. I may not know the correct pronunciation, spelling, or origin of those strange aliases, but one thing I do know is that pummelos are delicious! Ever since I first tasted them a few years ago, they have ranked among my favorite fruits. Even though they superficially resemble large grapefruits, they are very different. The peels are very thick, and the flesh is very firm and sweet, and encased in tough, thick membranes. They are much less juicy than other citrus, and they have none of the bitterness one would expect from a grapefruit.
After much waiting, this weekend we picked Hirado Buntan and Sarawak pummelos. Boy #1 was very excited to finally pick the monster citrus we've been watching all year. After picking them, we brought them inside to weigh them on Dr. Wife's kitchen scale. The Sarawak weighed in at 2 lbs, 13.2 oz, Hirado Buntan weighed in at a whopping 3 lbs, 7.8 oz! The Hirado Buntan is a pink-fleshed pummelo, and the Sarawak is a yellow-green-fleshed fruit. After tasting the two, I think that the Hirado Buntan is still a few weeks a way from being at peak ripeness, but the Sarawak was phenomenal! While the Hirado Buntan was only mildly flavored, the Sarawak was bursting with an intense and juicy lime/melon flavor. After tasting it, I couldn't get that tree planted in the ground fast enough. I planted it near the 1,000-gallon rain tank where it should be protected from frosts and get full sun. With any luck I'll have tons of the massive fruit before too long.
I'm not counting out the Hirado Buntan. When Dr. Wife and I first went to John Panzarella's citrus tasting, we had the exact opposite experience. His Hirado Buntans tasted phenomenal, and his Sarawaks were mild and a little watery. This makes me think that the Hirado Buntan just ripens a little later than the Sarawak, which is fine with me, because that means a longer pummelo season. We're also planting a Chandler pummelo this year, and if I can get my hands on the budwood, I'll also be grafting the Mato Buntan and Reinking pummelos onto some other trees.
Pummelos are one of the ancestral varieties of citrus, from which all other citrus (oranges, grapefruits, etc.) originate, and unlike more modern citrus their seeds are nucellar (i.e. produce hybrids). Not being able to pass up the chance to discover a cool new variety, I planted some seeds from each fruit. I don't know what may have pollinated the fruit, but they could have easily crossed with any of the several different citrus varieties that are growing in my yard. You never know what you might get. I'll let you know in a couple of years.
Today The Bell House blog turns 2 years old. Thank you to everyone for reading, for your comments/emails, and your encouragement!
Leaf Miner Damage
This year the citrus leaf miners have gone from being a nuisance to all-out infestation. All summer I watched as each sprig of new growth was mercilessly attacked by the little jerks. They would attack every leaf, causing them to shrivel, curl, and eventually fall off, leaving barren green twigs that should have been covered in lush green foliage. Once the leaves were gone, they even began to attack green wood. I typically don't spray any of my trees at all, preferring to let the good bugs take care of the bad ones. Unfortunately the natural predator of the leaf miner (a parasitoid wasp) doesn't live in Texas, and until an effective predator is introduced their numbers continue to grow unchecked. After some of my very young seedlings were almost completely defoliated, I decided enough was enough. It was time to fight back.
I think the damage was so bad this year for a couple reasons. First of all we really didn't have a winter this year, so there were no hard freezes to knock their populations down. Secondly, it was very wet year, which resulted in lots of new tender growth. So the leaf miners started the season at full strength, and were then treated to a huge supply of food. Of course, I'm sure I see a lot citrus leaf miners because I have a lot of citrus trees. There are also many many citrus trees planted in our neighborhood that experience regular leaf miner damage. So how should I fight them? Even if I had an effective treatment to wipe them out at my house, my trees would soon be re-colonized by invaders from my neighbors' yards. Clearly, this will be war of attrition.
Local expert Yvonne Gibbs says that she just plucks the affected leaves off of her trees, and that she is able to effective control the leaf miners in her yard that way. I wish I could do the same, but it has become so bad that if I plucked off every damaged leaf, the trees would almost be bare! I was talking with Mary Cummings (owner of RCW nursery) after the miracle fruit tasting we had there, and I asked her how she dealt with leaf miners. Their stock of citrus trees looked fantastic and healthy, and I mistakenly assumed that a nursery would have to use some nasty chemicals to keep the trees free of blemishes and looking good for sale. I was wrong! She told me that RCW uses an organic control method they learned from Randy Lemmon, that they use the same products they're selling at the nursery, and that they had not seen any bad leaf miner problems since they had implemented the program.
Randy Lemmon's program consists of alternating sprays of spinosad and neem oil, both of which are organic, every 7-10 days. Once the infestation is under control, he recommends dropping back to spraying every 10-14 days to prevent re-infestation. Spinosad is easy to find at local nurseries and big box stores in low concentrations (0.5% spinosad), but you can also buy one quart Conserve SC (11% spinosad) online for $150. The only containers of neem oil I could find locally were the little 8-ounce containers that cost $10 ($1.25 per ounce). Lucky for me, Mary special ordered a one gallon container of 100% neem oil for me ($0.75 per ounce), which should last over three years. She said she should also special order Conserve SC, but I decided to stick with the Fertilome spray for now.
So beginning September 1st until October 14th, I sprayed the trees every Sunday night, alternating between spinosad and neem oil. My strategy is to try to knock the leaf miners back a bit before we go into winter, spray all the trees with a good dormant oil in January, and then resume the spinosad/neem spray regimen in the spring in order to drive as many out of my yard as possible. I took care to only spray at dusk so as not to harm the bees, and did my best to really cover the trees well, especially the undersides of the leaves. I found that it took approximately 2 gallons to adequately cover everything, including the trees in the greenhouse. I read that spraying neem oil in hot weather could cause in leaf curling, and even though I sprayed at dusk when it had cooled off a bit, I still noticed some leaves with minor curling. Oh well, I haven't noticed any other ill effects from the spraying thus far, and I'd much rather have some slightly curled leaves than leaves damaged by miners. Other than that the results so far have been very encouraging, and I am very optimistic that with continued diligence, my trees can look as good as Mary's and Yvonne's.