PARK WEST PAPER

CITRUS CANKER

As a child in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, I was lucky: in and around our backyard, we had lemon, lime, and grapefruit trees, travelers’ palms, and a handsome mango tree, which sat majestically in the yard next door and dropped fruit into ours. The citrus trees excited me most; the grapefruit, like the mango, wasn’t quite mine, but trees belong to nobody but the earth. The gray-trunked marvel, kitty-corner to our backyard, was behind a fence, and the neighbors didn’t pick its fruit, let alone acknowledge its splendor—like the way the gnarled branches had, in a gorgeous feat, grown around and through their tight confines, stretching across the chain-link.

 

I don’t like the bright bitterness of grapefruit, but my mother does, and she’d eat them halved for breakfast, sprinkling brown sugar atop the innards. Unprompted favors for my mom carried out solely for the pleasure of her surprise—this was childhood bliss. I’d climb the fence at our yard’s edge to pluck the sunshine-yellow fruit, always a little overripe. My friends and I happily disappeared into the grapefruit tree’s nook, fancying ourselves explorers. Its image is a background onto which I project various stages of my young self: me, perched on the fence with a walkie-talkie; me with a notebook; me not there at all, having grown bored. I don’t remember the seasons in which the fruit produced. Those days are a season unto themselves the way Florida is too—how we joke “we’ve no seasons here,” incognizant of the molecular and unseen transformations of soil, plants, and insects. I don’t remember when I learned that the citrus trees were sick.

 

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When citrus canker infects trees, it enters through minute wounds—from harsh winds or hungry insects—and presents as mottled, brownish lesions festooning the leaves, stems, or fruits. The marks can appear oil-slick and wet, bordered with a yellowy-orange halo. Infected fruit is not unsafe to eat, but as the bacteria—Xanthomonas axonopodis—impacts the tree’s vitality, it becomes a temporal disease, causing the fruit to drop prematurely and sending its growth cycle into disarray. Symptoms appear within two weeks, and even old lesions remain rife with bacteria. The canker is especially contagious in hot, wet climates, as lesions ooze more cells, winds, and rains disperse them to neighboring trees. Today, we manage the disease as it appears. Prevention is key, but bactericides and the Citrus Health Response Program can help infected trees.

 

There are few better examples of the irony of colonization than the arrival of citrus canker in Florida. Less the bacterium’s fault than the overall development that introduced it, in the end, the state would spend millions of dollars and destroy as many trees as were brought to correct this self-inflicted damage. Long ago, citrus canker seemed believably, or arrogantly, eradicable. It arrived in the States with trifoliate citrus rootstock and Satsuma from Japan. It first appeared in Texas in 1910, and then in Florida around 1912 at a Monticello citrus nursery where University of Florida entomologist Dr. Edward Berger spotted its symptoms. It’s worth noting that less than a decade earlier, dredging of the Everglades had begun in earnest in South Florida—in the name of scalable, profitable agricultural production—transforming Indigenous communities’ lives and inflicting environmental distress, which continues to this day. Citrus canker’s spread was partially responsible for the Plant Quarantine Act, enacted that same year, which allowed the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to regulate the interstate transport of potentially diseased plants and trees.

 

Defoliating and pruning proved ineffective against citrus canker. Growers resorted to burning infected trees. The Florida Plant Act, a predecessor of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Division of Plant Industry (DPI), was passed in 1915. The accompanying organization—then known as the Plant Board—was responsible for inspection at the Grower’s and Shipper’s League. Apprentices paid for citrus canker training themselves. The initiative was successful—The Plant Board declared citrus canker eradicated in 1935.

 

The strain later detected in 1984, at a nursery in Avon Park, was not nearly as virulent as the first. Two years later, the original strain was back, this time on a residential citrus tree in Anna Maria Island—and then in Pinellas, Sarasota, Manatee, and Hillsborough counties. The trees were cut down and, by 1994, the disease seemed gone for good—until 1995, when it reappeared on both commercial and residential trees in Miami. A DPI blog post explains that “experts believe the majority of the outbreaks of citrus canker in Florida after 1997 resulted from a single introduction in the Miami area,” an instance unrelated to the 1986 infestation. In 2000, says the same post, “Governor Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency for canker-infected counties.” The Citrus Canker Eradication Program (CCEP) was implemented, along with instruction for the removal of all citrus trees within 1900 feet of a detected canker.

 

Homeowners were distressed by the removal of their trees and dissatisfied with the attendant compensation. In “Florida Fights to Stop Citrus Canker,” a 2001 Science magazine story, Ft. Lauderdale resident Jack Haire is quoted: “When the 1900-foot study was agreed to in 1998, the public was not invited. The citrus interests were present, though.” Liz Compton, a spokesperson for the Florida agriculture department, responded that the CCEP had spent over a million dollars on outreach to educate homeowners about the threat of citrus canker. Either way, homeowners took their grievances to court, complicating the 1900-foot rule until 2002, when citrus canker was effectively everywhere, traveling the state from Miami-Dade to Sarasota counties. The 1900-foot rule became law.

 

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No one in my family remembers the exact date of the citrus trees’ removal, though my best guess says it happened in 2000. A neighbor’s tree had been infected; I hid in my room while the lemon, lime, and grapefruit trees were sawed to stumps. My parents were compensated $100 to be used for another tree or garden items. A friend recently joked, “The citrus canker was the end of our innocence,” and perhaps he was referring to our personal nomenclature of nature, how it shifted for us that day—capital-N nature, nature as mythos. When I was very young, the landscape felt inseparable from my own body, an ecosystem I was manifestly part of; later, after I lost the plain wisdom of childhood, I learned nature was to be known, categorized, prodded, indexed, but also feared, idealized, and colonized. Even in Florida schools, where we adapted to the land’s own particular rhythms, Indigenous knowledge of flora and fauna was absent from our curriculums.

 

The 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons continued to spread citrus canker throughout Florida. In 2006, after the destruction of 16.5 million citrus trees, the U.S. Department of Agriculture discontinued funding for the CCEP, stating the disease was officially endemic to the state and impossible to eradicate.

 

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A vicious citrus canker might have destroyed businesses and livelihoods along with them; agricultural work is already physically exhausting, frequently punitive, and often undertaken by folks who are vulnerable to the disenfranchising conditions under which they must conduct it. These days, Floridian citrus trees are subject to another blight, the Huanglongbing bacterium, which causes citrus greening—the raw green fruit never ripens and simply falls to the ground. Citrus psyllid, a rapidly-reproducing insect, spreads the bacteria while it snacks on leaves. A 2019 Washington Post story outlined its already devastating effects, explaining that “thousands of growers have already quit, leaving ‘ghost groves’ in their wake” and “about two-thirds of the factories that processed fruit to juice have shut down.” According to a University of Florida study cited in the article, 34,000 jobs were eliminated in the decade leading up to 2016. Though new research is being conducted to help manage greening, it’s only one factor responsible for the recent drop in citrus production; others include commercial and residential development.

 

When I consider Florida’s relationship with citrus canker, of course, it was the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes—like the nearly concurrent housing market crash—that extinguished the possibility of control. I recall my sadness when the citrus trees, which I’d previously imbued with personalities, became negative space, still, what an extravagance to have a backyard, to have any space to explore, to daydream. It was a small heartbreak, especially in contrast to our house’s eventual foreclosure, and even then, that we ever had such a home, lived in it at all, is a treasure—a pistachio-colored jewelry box of a house. A postcard Florida picture, a black cat at the window and the window obscured by palm trees. A home to contain our memories and joys and pains and so many temporizing moments: the uncountable shades of green in one plant; the long stretch of jalousie window panes; the haunted chair in my sister’s room; the light on the terrazzo, coloring it rainbow shades; the citrus trees and all the others, too. I will never stop feeling grateful.

 

It’s strange to consider “invasive diseases” at a time when I only associate such a troubling phrase with racist tirades of blame and scores of preventable deaths. I am steadily fearful of everything, of the new diseases and new hurts we’ll face as wild spaces are further decimated, and farcical empires attempt to prop themselves up amidst their own collapse. I am as confused and uncertain about the Florida citrus industry’s future as I am about all other futures, all other potentialities. Life has always felt arcane; life has never felt more arcane.

Written by: Monica Uszerowicz