January 17, 2008

By Victoria County Master Gardener Intern Carl Van Dolzer
Edited by Charla Borchers Leon
“Citrus are not only good to eat but the trees are wonderful ornamental plants for the garden. This late winter display of mandarin citrus tree fruit illustrates the large volume of fruit a relatively small size tree can bear.”
When people usually think of citrus groves they think of Florida and California, but the Rio Grande Valley here in our neck of the woods has a long history of citrus growing, even being celebrated with annual festivals.  Numerous cold hardy varieties have been developed that can be grown in our little part of Texas as well.


Citrus are a tropical/subtropical plant originating from southeast Asia, but have been cultivated by man for hundreds of years in Japan and China, moving to Europe, brought to the new world by Christopher Columbus, and finally to America by Ponce De Leon in the 1500’s.  They have been so popular because of the value they provide such as sweet smelling flowers, ornamental fruit, heavenly taste, and great nutritious properties.  Seems this plant family has it all.

The citrus and its kin enjoy full sun but can take a little rest from the hottest afternoon sun.  They are best planted on the south side of your home to protect them from a cold winter’s north wind; however, a prolonged cold spell of 25 degrees could severely damage or kill your tree.  Roots become dormant when the soil temperature falls below 50 degrees Fahrenheit but wake right up as the soil warms.  Trees can be started from seed and are usually more cold hardy; however, you will have to wait 7 to 15 years for flower and fruit.

If you have shopped any local nurseries for a tree of your very own, you have probably noticed the trees tagged with the Texas Department of Agriculture label certifying homegrown plants.  Due to the possibility of spreading some very nasty “overseas” bugs to the commercial and home citrus industries, no citrus tree maybe imported into the states of Arizona, California, Florida, or Texas.  It’s just another good reason to be Texas proud and buy locally.


That being said, most citrus are relatively pest free.  Watch for aphids, spider mites, and mealy bugs.  If these pests appear, spray the leaves and stems with a good organic insecticidal soap according to label directions.  Watering is the most important and neglected practice to keep an eye on.  Citrus require good drainage and average moisture until established.  If Mother Nature hasn’t supplied you with enough rain, citrus trees should receive extra watering every 14 to 21 days from February to November.

The following are just a few varieties that should give good success with your citrus venture, but there are many more out there that might be enjoyable to try.


Oranges are perhaps the most well known and favorite citrus available.  The recommended variety by Texas AgriLife Extension Service (formally Texas Cooperative Extension) for our area is the navel orange, which is a large tree with large yellow/orange fruit, and a good resistance to cold temperatures.  There are even red-fleshed sweet oranges, better known as blood oranges.


Mandarins and Tangerines are among the most cold hardy citrus varieties for our area.  The members of the mandarin family recommended for this area include Satsuma (Owari variety), Clementine tangerine, Dancy tangerine, and Changsha tangerine.  They are all medium size trees that have small fruit ready to eat from October to December, and rind colors from orange to dark orange/red.


Lemon and lime trees may not be as cold hardy as some other varieties, but almost all of us have heard of or seen the Improved Meyer’s lemon and Mexican lime.  How about the Kaffir lime?  It isn’t grown for its small sour fruit but it is grown for the highly aromatic leaves used in Asian cooking.  The Key lime is similar to the Mexican lime but has small leaves and very few thorns.


Grapefruit is another popular one to try.  Interestingly enough, the name Grapefruit was given to this citrus because its fruit is borne in grapelike clusters.  Oroblanco is a good variety with large fragrant blooms and white fleshed fruit or try the variety Rio Red with deep red flesh and few seeds.


There are many other fun and fantastic citrus varieties to try.  Kumquats are especially wonderful since they are usually in flower or fruit all year long. There are pummelos, tangelos, orangequats, and limequats, and also many hybrids between mandarins, grapefruits and oranges, and on and on.  You should be able to find a citrus to please just about any taste bud around.

Growing citrus in pots can be a rewarding experience.  Many stay small and compact making them ideal for container gardening.  A bonus is that they can me moved around your yard or patio for enjoyment of fruit and flower and also inside for protection on the coldest days.  Be careful and do not over-water.  As a rule, let the upper one inch of your potting mix dry before watering.  Cool weather will slow the growth of your tree so reduce watering during the winter.  Potted trees should be fertilized with a good organic fertilizer used according to label instruction.

Citrus fruits and juices have many beneficial health properties. They are rich in Vitamin C or ascorbic acid and folic acid, as well as a good source of fiber. They are fat free, sodium free, and cholesterol free. In addition they contain potassium, calcium, foliate, thiamin, niacin, vitamin B6, phosphorus, magnesium, and copper. They may even help to reduce the risk of heart diseases and some types of cancer.  Plus they taste just too darn good to not have one (or two) in you landscape.

Next time you’re at the grocery store purchasing your bag of oranges or that bottle of vitamin C, consider planting a citrus tree.  Not only will you have those wonderful sweet smelling blossoms to enjoy, but there is the reward of fresh fruit picked right off the tree.  It doesn’t get any better then that!

1. Purchase recommended varieties of Texas-grown trees from a reputable nursery.
2. Citrus prefer Southern exposure and full sun for optimum growth.
3. Proper watering is important with less frequent but deep watering preferred.  Mulching will help conserve water.
4. Plant citrus in a well-drained soil enriched with compost.
5. Citrus requires nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, sulfur and calcium to thrive, so use an all-purpose fertilizer.
6. Depending on citrus variety, protect from freezing temperatures. Mound soil, hay and/or leaves around the trunk as high as possible and/or cover with blankets.
7. While bugs seldom harm a mature tree, treat young trees with a good organic pesticide if needed.
8. Citrus do not require regular pruning although keeping the center of the tree open will allow more sunlight to reach the leaves and fruit. Prune out leggy growth to keep a neat appearance.
9. Plant and enjoy this long-lived heirloom plant for years to come. They’re great in the landscape, being mostly evergreen and offering fragrant flowers and colorful fruit.
“Growing behind an old abandoned home in Cuero, this orange tree is extremely hardy, even in cooler weather and with no care, having glossy dark green foliage and bright orange fruit.”