In late 2016, as many of us were enjoying the harvests from our backyard citrus, a bacterial plant disease that can affect all citrus, citrus greening, was widespread in central and south Florida but had not made it this far north. That year, the vector, the insect that spreads the disease from tree to tree, had been found in Leon County and a few other surrounding Panhandle counties, but the disease had not. By mid-2017, the disease had been confirmed in Franklin County and we hoped that our cooler temperatures could keep the insect and disease at bay. Well, I regret to inform you that the disease has also now been confirmed in Leon County, growing in a residential yard in Tallahassee. Now that it is confirmed in non-coastal (and cooler) north Florida locations, I thought a review of the signs and symptoms – as well as what to do with your tree if you suspect or confirm greening – would be helpful.
The tricky part about diagnosing citrus greening is that it has symptoms that look very similar to soil nutrient deficiency symptoms, especially when first infected. This is a good time to mention that citrus require certain micro-nutrients for optimal growth and a citrus-specific fertilizer product should be used when applying fertilizer. Both the disease and certain nutrient deficiencies cause yellowing of the leaves. With greening, the yellowing is typically blotchy and/or not in any particular pattern. Nutrient deficiencies typically cause unique patterns of yellowing, such as a V-shape or artistic-like symmetrical patterns on each side of the leaf’s midvein. The soil’s acidity, or pH, can also cause some nutrients to not be taken up by the plant even if they are present. Soil testing, available from your local UF/IFAS Extension office, and scheduled fertilizations with a citrus-specific fertilizer can ensure that nutrients are not to blame for the discoloring of leaves. More advanced stages of the disease cause such symptoms as leaf drop, fruit drop, lop-sided fruit, uneven inner fruit cores, and reduced fruit quality.
A more obvious sign of potential problems for your citrus are the presence of the insect vector, the Asian citrus psyllid. This is a tiny little insect that goes from one leaf to the other sucking up plant saps for food and unknowingly spreading the bacterium responsible for citrus greening. You can monitor for them by looking closely at the new flushes of growth. If the psyllids are present, you will likely notice most their small, peach-colored eggs and/or white, waxy secretions. If found, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your tree has greening, but you will want to minimize the chance that they could carry it to your tree. The psyllids can be treated with pesticides, ranging from the less harsh options (horticulture oils, neem oil, kaolin clay) to the more hardcore stuff (malathion, carbaryl, imidacloprid). Of course, always read the label of any pesticide before use and/or consult a qualified landscape professional for assistance.
If you suspect your tree is infected, a diagnostic test can be performed by UF/IFAS plant pathologists at the North Florida Research and Education Center (NFREC) in Quincy to confirm. The test does cost $50, which may seem a little steep, but it’s an expensive lab analysis to run and may be worth piece of mind.
If citrus greening is confirmed in your tree, the right thing to do, unfortunately, is to remove and burn the plant material as there is no known cure. While the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) doesn’t have any removal requirements for infected dooryard citrus, tree removal is best to prevent additional spread of the disease to other trees, especially those grown by commercial producers in our area. This may seem drastic but eventually the health of the tree and quality of the fruit will decline to a point where you will want to remove it anyway. Don’t forget that movement of any citrus plant outside of the state is prohibited for the very reason of preventing spread of citrus diseases.
You may be asking, “Is it okay to replace it with another citrus tree?” The answer is yes you can, but you do risk re-infection and will want to be monitoring the new planting.
You may also be thinking, “What is going to happen to Florida citrus?” That’s a question that many researchers at UF/IFAS are trying to answer. There is some hope that intense irrigation and nutrient management, as well as specific pruning practices, can help infected trees continue to be profitable for commercial growers. Recently, UF/IFAS researchers were awarded several grants to try and figure a way out of this problem. Some of the lines of research focus on exploring the resistance found in different citrus varieties, including an Australian lime that appears to be greening resistant. This could potentially be used as a future rootstock. Another approach is to try and treat the plants with a particular peptide that would prevent the disease from binding in the insect’s gut. Isn’t that amazing?
Until a fix is found, we should be monitoring for this disease in our area and taking steps to reduce its presence through controlling the psyllids and removing infected trees. If you suspect a tree has greening, please contact your local county Extension office to review the symptoms and discuss your options.
Much more information on citrus greening is available at the following Ask IFAS website: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/entity/topic/citrus_greening and from this 2017 article – https://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/phag/2017/03/03/disease-alert-citrus-greening-and-asian-citrus-psyllids-found-in-the-panhandle/.