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Neighborhood Report

Holidays enhancements are ripe for the picking

Floridians know that some gifts are picked with ease, right from the yard, for the stuff of Northerners' dreams.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 27, 2002

At Thanksgiving, it sweetens Herma Stucke's cranberry relish. At Christmastime, Kathy Echevarria dunks it with dried coconut.

Marvin Olivieri doesn't need a holiday excuse: Every now and then, he mixes it up with a few bottles of wine.

"Yeah, man," Olivieri said. "We watch movies and drink a gallon."

The secret ingredient? Home-grown citrus.

Tampa yards overflow with it.

The fruit ripens around the holidays, a gift for those lucky enough to live in Florida.

Inside toasty homes, trees sparkle with plastic trinkets. Outside, they're decked out with orbs of pulpy sunshine.

"We're coming into prime season right now," said JoAnn Hoffman, an urban horticulturist with the Hillsborough County Extension Service.

Rituals follow the harvest.

In Oakford Park, Echevarria carefully segments oranges from the tree she planted 20 years ago. With coconut, she concocts ambrosia to compete with Christmas cookies.

On Christmas morning, she serves jingle cake, made with honey, raisins, cinnamon, walnuts and fresh OJ.

In Carver City, Fontaine Wells' yard is graced with a 40-year-old tangerine tree and a scruffy counterpart that still produces grapefruit. Rows of collard greens perk up beneath them.

Wells, 39, doesn't like fruit. But her neighbors do. One neighbor conducts a taste test every week until he's satisfied it's plucking time.

"I tell them to get a bag and help themselves," Wells said.

Stucke, in Gandy Gardens, keeps most of her oranges to herself.

When the first ones ripen before Thanksgiving, she mixes them with apple and cranberry and serves them with turkey. After that, Stucke, 69, puts the squeeze on her crop every day.

One tree yields enough juice to last through March.

"It's so convenient," she said.

Florida wouldn't be the same without citrus.

In 1971, Stucke, from New York City, planted herself in Florida soil. To celebrate, she planted one orange and one grapefruit tree. They have thrived beside her.

Ben Drenth, an Iowa native, planted his trees when he got to Tampa in the early 1950s.

"It's Florida. You have to have oranges," said Drenth, 82, a retired Air Force pilot who lives in Guernsey Estates.

A bitter freeze killed Drenth's lemon and grapefruit trees, but the tangerine tree is still kicking. He disperses the fruit far and wide, to next-door neighbors and complete strangers.

"Help yourself," he said. "I'm getting too old to climb trees."

Michael and Anita Thornton's grapefruit tree is "dad's tree."

Every year, Michael Thornton's late father would visit their home in the Gandy neighborhood and take some back to Ohio.

The tree, now 25 feet tall, yields 1,000 grapefruit a year. Relatives still return to Ohio with full trunks.

All that fruit can be a burden.

Tsao Nguyen regularly uses oranges in Vietnamese dishes. But there's only so many her family can eat. With five trees, her Gandy yard is a minigrove.

It falls to oldest son Thien, 11, to throw away fallen oranges before they attract clouds of flies.

"It's a very hard job," he said, lowering his head.

Fruit rats can be a problem, too.

Drawn to citrus, they sniff out ways to enter sheds and homes. The telltale sign: hollowed-out shells.

Despite what experts say, Olivieri, the guy who blends wine and citrus, insists the culprits are bats. He points to damaged fruit on the orange and lemon trees near his Interbay home.

"There ain't a rat alive that can get up there," he said, though he admits he's never seen the citrus-sucking bat.

Whatever they are, they don't nibble too long on the lemons.

Which is good, because Olivieri loves lemonade.

-- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or .

Citrus tips:

To check if your fruit is ripe, taste it. Color on the outside can be deceiving. A green orange might be perfectly ripe.

Get your fruit off the tree. The Hillsborough County Extension Service doesn't recommend eating fruit after it has dropped to the ground. It might get contaminated by bacteria.

For more guidance, go to the citrus page on the extension service Web site,, or call the office at 744-5519.

If you can't eat it all, charities will take your fruit. Divine Providence Food Bank, at 5300 E Adamo Drive, takes it if you bring it in. Metropolitan Ministries, 2002 N Florida Ave., also takes it and may be able to pick it up. Call 209-1000.

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