10 things to know about Florida citrus, greening

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

LAKE WALES, Fla. (AP) — A disease called greening is threatening to wipe out a vital part of Florida's economy and identity: the state's $9 billion citrus industry. Here are 10 things to know about Florida citrus, its history and the disease imperiling the industry:


1. Florida historians say citrus trees were brought to the peninsula in the mid-1500s by Spanish explorers and first planted along the state's northeast coast, near St. Augustine. Oranges and grapefruits have been farmed commercially since the 1800s. By the mid-20th century, an aggressive marketing campaign led Americans to associate the state's abundant sunshine with orange juice.


2. Walt Disney's parents once owned a citrus grove, as did novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe and fashion designer Lily Pulitzer's husband. Oranges even inspired Pulitzer's entree into fashion; after opening a juice stand in 1959, Pulitzer asked her seamstress to make dresses in colorful prints to camouflage the fruit stains that were getting on her clothes.


3. Famous people have long promoted Florida OJ. Bing Crosby crooned about Minute Maid's "freshly frozen bright sunshine" in 1948. Former beauty pageant winner Anita Bryant was hired as a brand ambassador in the 1960s but then created controversy when she came out in favor of repealing a gay rights ordinance in Miami-Dade County. A juice boycott ensued. This year, the Florida Department of Citrus signed FOX Sports reporter Erin Andrews as a spokeswoman.


4. In 1965, orange groves covered 695,824 acres. Because of development, hurricane damage and now greening, that number has diminished to 464,918 acres. There are, however, more orange trees planted in the state than a half-century ago: 61,638 trees compared to 53,893. Growers are planting more trees per acre to get greater yields because so much fruit is dropping due to greening. Oranges comprise the bulk of the state's citrus crop.


5. First reported in China in 1943, greening disease mostly ended commercial citrus in Asia, except for Japan. In Chinese the disease is called "huanglongbing," or "yellow dragon disease," because the first signs are yellowed leaves that resemble a dragon's tail.


6. Greening is a bacteria spread by the citrus psyllid, a tiny mottled brown bug. An infected psyllid sucks the soft tissue out of a citrus tree's leaves, depositing bacteria that clog the tree's vascular system and cause defoliation, massive fruit drop and root dieback. Eventually the tree dies.


7. The psyllid isn't native to Florida, but it is believed to have arrived from someone who perhaps unknowingly brought a slip of a tree from Asia. The bug was first spotted in Florida in 1998, and some think it then spread across the state on the winds of hurricanes. Greening was first found in 2005.


8. Greening has also been spotted in Brazil, where growers have cut down millions of trees and planted sugar cane instead. It's also been found in Mexico. In the United States, greening so far has been detected in fewer than 200 commercial trees in Texas. In California, greening has been found in at least one tree in Los Angeles, and officials are conducting a survey to determine if it has spread. The disease has not been spotted in any groves in Arizona.


9. There is no cure for greening, and no country has ever successfully eradicated it. But since 2008, $90 million has been spent in Florida on greening research. Possible solutions include one day developing a greening-resistant tree.


10. The spread of greening coincides with an increase in foreign competition and a decrease in U.S. juice consumption. Since the 1950s, Florida orange juice has been touted as a "powerhouse of vitamin C," as one commercial put it. But in recent years, nutritionists have criticized orange juice, saying it is filled with sugar and unnecessary carbohydrates. Citrus experts believe concern over sugar content is a big reason why retail orange juice sales in the U.S. have declined almost 37 percent in the 12 citrus seasons through 2012-13.