tampabay.com

No kumquat branches shipped

A quarantine over citrus canker fears means no leafy plants for lunar new year celebrations.

By Kit Ingalls
Published February 18, 2007


Kumquat branches are a traditional element of lunar new year celebrations, which begin today.

Celebrants decorate their homes with the branches. The green leaves represent wealth; the golden fruits signify luck and their oval shape exemplifies unity and perfection. Given to guests, the branches symbolize gifts of wealth and good fortune.

Kumquat Growers Inc., of Saint Joseph, ships more than two-thirds of the nation's kumquats. It ships the hardy Nagami variety, normally sending 2,500 bushels of branches annually for lunar new year.

This year, Kumquat Growers will ship no branches.

There are plenty of young branches laden with kumquats. The Florida crop is bountiful this year, thanks to cool fall nights and well timed rainfall.

But, what nature has given, USDA rules have taken away.

On Aug. 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture quarantined all Florida citrus, including kumquats, because of concerns over citrus canker.

Quarantined fruit may be shipped to the nation's 45 non-citrus producing states, provided they are "free of leaves, twigs, and other plant parts." Kumquats can be shipped, but the branches cannot.

"In my opinion, shipping kumquats with leaves would not be a problem," said Gloria Moore, University of Florida professor of horticulture, who has been researching citrus diseases for 26 years. "The (Nagami) variety is definitely, in our hands, resistant to citrus canker."

In a five-year project, Moore and her colleagues have analyzed the response of Nagami kumquats to citrus canker and have found the two to be "incompatible." They presented their results at the International Plant and Animal Genome Conference in January.

Far from acting as hosts for the canker, the Nagami kumquats suppress it by causing the inoculated tissue to die and the affected leaves to fall off.

"We are looking at the genes that are turned on when we inoculate kumquats with canker," said Moore, who hopes to provide resistance to other citrus by isolating and transferring the kumquat genes.

USDA spokesman Tyrone Kemp said he was not aware of Moore's research. "We had heard only that kumquats were highly resistant to citrus canker. Once something like that is published, we will have to take that into consideration."

When asked if the USDA had any evidence of citrus canker in Florida's commercial kumquat crops, Kemp responded, "That's a good question."

Frank Gude, co-owner of Kumquat Growers, knows the answer. "There has never been citrus canker in our commercial kumquats. Canker has never been found in Pasco County, in any kind of citrus."

Gude has been growing, picking, packing and shipping kumquats for 70 years. He and the other kumquat growers can trace the lineage of their trees. They budded most of the trees themselves. The rest came directly from Pasco County stock certified by the state to be canker-free.

In December, the USDA modified its rules to allow shipment of kumquat trees from Florida, but not branches.

Why allow shipments of trees but not branches? "That's a good question," said Kemp, who added that the agency would issue new, interim regulations in April.

The kumquat season ends in March. In a normal season, 40 percent of kumquat growers' shipments would have been branches.

Being able to ship the branches would have meant more money for the pickers, the grove owners, and the company. At every stage of production, the branches are more lucrative than the individually clipped kumquats.

"The impact has been there all season long," says Gude. "We have lost customers because we have lost our leaf business."