We can’t really whine about the weather here, at least not to family members up North, but thinking of south Florida residents who have grapefruit and lemon trees in their backyard is enough to make one a little envious.
But we don’t have to be.
The Aquinas High School campus is dotted with citrus trees, thanks to Joe LeVert and his horticulture students over the past 32 years.
The trick is to research the varieties of citrus trees available, LeVert said. Most of the extremely cold-hardy citrus are so bitter no one wants to touch the fruit. But there are a number of varieties of orange, lemon, lime, kumquat and persimmon trees that will produce sweet, tasty fruit in our area. The really cool thing is that the fruit ripens when it gets cooler.
For example, LeVert hunted for a couple of small delicate satsuma kimbro oranges missed by grazing students. They are mouth-wateringly good. Since we are in the most northern range for this tree you need to protect it in the winter.
Another sweet fruit LeVert pulled off a tree was a small, green fruit you pop into your mouth because the skin is edible. The tree is a cross between a yuzu citrus fruit like a lemon and a nagami kumquat.
The tree at the high school is still full of fruit that LeVert said will just get better as it gets colder.
There is a darker type of citrus that grows well in our area but you won’t be eating the fruits. They are trifoliate hybrids of oranges that are tough enough to live through winters even in Philadelphia. They are pretty but very sour.
A good, sweet citrus for our area is meiwa kumquat. The thorns are vicious, but the small fruit that you pop in your mouth whole are super and edible through January.
All citrus trees have thorns – thorns capable of ripping flesh. But the trees are so pretty when they are full of fruit that the camellias must be jealous.
LeVert said the trees are also speculator in the spring when they bloom and produce wonderful fragrances.
Some of the prettiest trees are the persimmon varieties. LeVert said he has a hard time convincing students to try the bright orange Japanese persimmon. When the fruit is ripe it’s very squishy.
One of the best varieties is the fuyu persimmon.
Local nurseries probably won’t have the varieties that are tasty, cold-hardy and pretty, but there are mail order sites, such as woodlanders.net in Aiken.
LeVert said it’s best to plant the trees in the spring so they have as much time as possible to acclimate before cold weather. They don’t need a lot of fertilizer but a little balanced fertilizer around March is appreciated. It will probably take most varieties eight to 10 years to produce fruit.