On Beyond Orange: Seeking Out New Citrus Varieties

While thousands of juice jingles have been written about the orange, and many of us can’t imagine breakfast without it, it may be time to branch out.

Originally from China, everyone from St. Augustine’s first Spanish settlers to modern agricultural speculators from northern states planted orange trees in Florida, and much of the time, they thrived, overcoming the occasional frost and pest.

As the Tampa Bay Times puts it, “The orange is so iconic and entwined in the Florida dream that this agricultural product is considered part of the ‘natural’ landscape. After all, Florida boasts an Orange County and Citrus County, and towns named Orange City, Orange Park and Orange Springs. The orange blossom is Florida’s official state flower, the orange the official state fruit, and since 1998, an orange has served as the emblem on state license plates. State law even protects oranges from defamation and bans the shipment of ‘green fruit.'”

But in recent years, Florida’s oranges are being threatened by citrus greening disease, spread by an insect no bigger than the head of a pin. Experts estimate greening has affected more than 70 percent of the state’s groves, leading to a burst of research into genetic modification to try to slow the pace of the infestation. But time may be running out. Citrus greening is spreading to other states, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts the state’s orange crop will be 8 percent smaller this year than last. In 2014, it was down 11 percent from the year before.

Now citrus greening is spreading beyond oranges. “Known susceptible plants include orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, kumquat, and tangerine trees, says the USDA, which has quarantined groves in four states in an effort to contain the disease.

While researchers work to preserve the citrus fruits we know and love, and create new hybrids like the tangelo, pummelo-blood orange, and others, there are many other varieties to try, from the elegant Buddha’s hand to the finger lemon, as you can see in our Your Shot gallery. Who knows? Maybe one of these holds the genetic key to helping oranges overcome the disease.