Charleston is seeing a new wave of citrus cultivation—satsumas, grapefruit, Meyer lemons, and more. Here’s a look at the boom-and-bust cycle of this once-popular colonial crop, today’s innovative farmers and researchers, plus growing tips and recipes
Written By Margaret Loftus
Photographs By Amanda Bouknight
Marty Thomas planted his grapefruit trees on a whim. Impressed by the sweet and juicy pink variety a friend had shared, he and his wife, Donna, stuck a handful of the seeds in soil and were pleasantly surprised when a dozen saplings pushed up through the dirt within a year. Nearly two decades later, their four remaining trees measure roughly 25-feet tall and 15-feet wide each, yielding thousands of grapefruit every winter, which the James Island couple sells to local food hub GrowFood Carolina for distribution to regional restaurants. Still, Thomas, who lives in a subdivision off Harbor View Road, insists he’s not a farmer. “We just plant things and like to see them grow.”
It’s a mantra that resonates strongly with Charlestonians these days as they snap up grapefruit and all manner of citrus trees as soon as local nurseries can stock them. In a USDA zone that has long straddled the northern edge of citrus viability, Clemson University’s local extension office is fielding more and more inquiries from gardeners who want to plant everything from kumquats to calamondins—the occasional frost be damned. Clemson horticulture agent Chris Burtt attributes the boom to the DIY culture that emerged in the wake of the pandemic and a slight uptick in average winter temperatures. Plus, you can’t dispute the novelty. “Because of the fragrance and fruit, citrus makes you feel like you have a slice of paradise,” says Burtt.
Farmers, too, are rolling the dice. Fueled by an appetite for locally grown produce, about a dozen producers in the Beaufort and Charleston areas, including the Thomases, now sell citrus to GrowFood. General manager Anthony Mirisciotta says the food hub has seen production rise by 20 to 30 percent a year, with new varieties being added all the time. At any given point during the season, they may stock four different kinds of mandarins, plus blood oranges, lemons, white grapefruit, pink grapefruit, yuzu, and limes. “It’s a really good place to be in with the market demand; it’s such a specialty thing,” says Mirisciotta. “The majority of our sales are going to restaurants, who are really excited about it, as well as bar programs, local breweries, and distilleries.”
(Left to right) A box of satsumas from Marty and Donna Thomas’s Dogwood Farms; Donna and Marty Thomas couldn’t give away the thousands of grapefruit their four trees produced every year—plus oranges, lemons, and more—so they started selling them to GrowFood Carolina; Pink grapefruit boxed and ready for GrowFood Carolina..
Charleston and citrus have a long history together, punctuated by booms and busts throughout the centuries. While Native Americans and Spanish explorers may well have planted orange seeds here before English settlers arrived at Albemarle Point, the first records of citrus in the area date from just after the colony was established in 1670. Eager to hit on a lucrative crop, the settlers hedged their bets by planting a wide assortment of seeds, such as sugarcane, ginger root, indigo, cotton, olives, and a variety of citrus. Five months after arriving in the first fleet, a colonist named Stephen Bull wrote to the proprietors back in England that he’d planted oranges, lemons, limes, pomegranates, figs, and plantains, according to John Hiatt, park historian at Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site. “He went on to say that they were thriving and that he believed they would reach maturity,” Hiatt notes.
We don’t know if Bull’s trees bore any fruit, but Seville oranges—a sour variety—were eventually planted by the tens of thousands in the 1680s in plantations like the one near what is now Orange Grove Road in West Ashley, according to Nic Butler, historian at Charleston County Public Library. Ornamental trees were popular, too. “There’s no record of a systematic campaign to plant orange trees everywhere, but apparently there were private citizens doing it,” Butler says. Ansonborough was loaded with fruit-bearing orange trees, he adds, as was the western part of Broad Street—now Orange Street—which served as a concert venue in the mid-18th century, with a stage and a promenade flanked by Seville orange hedges and flower beds.
Commercially, oranges were holding their own into the 18th century. In the 1740s, local merchants boasted of exporting oranges to England, and Governor James Glen assured officials in 1745 that the colony’s plantations were bountiful enough to supply the London market, according to Butler. By 1747-48, Charleston was exporting some 296,000 oranges a year—just a tenth of one percent of the colony’s exports (not surprisingly, rice made up more than half). But any potential for growth, along with the crop, was wiped out during a major freeze in February 1748. “After that point, nobody expected to recover enough to produce at a commercial scale,” Butler says. “At the same time, there’s a war going on with France and Spain, and England is encouraging colonies to diversify so planters are experimenting with all kinds of crops, and that’s when people put their money into indigo.”
“Because of the fragrance and fruit, citrus makes you feel like you have a slice of paradise.” —Chris Burtt, Clemson Extension
While no longer considered a viable export, oranges still proliferated across the peninsula, including in the 232-acre plantation of wealthy planter John Gibbes, comprised of what is now Lowndes Grove, The Citadel, Hampton Park, and much of the Wagener Terrace neighborhood. That is, until the spring of 1780 when British soldiers seized the orange plantation to use as a staging area for the Siege of Charleston and cut down the fruit trees for firewood. Decades later, in 1835, a severe freeze hit the Southeast—temperatures bottomed out at 1 degree Fahrenheit in Charleston—decimating citrus all the way to northern Florida and ultimately pushing cultivation further south.
(Clockwise, top) A 1907 plat of Orange Grove Plantation; A map of downtown highlighting an 18th-century orange grove that served as a concert venue, known today as Orange Street; A plat made in 1765 to accompany the grant of marshland adjacent to Orange Grove Plantation on the Ashley River.
Such is the heartbreak of growing citrus trees in the Lowcountry. Most recently, a freak snow and ice storm in early January 2018 kept temperatures low enough for several days to wipe out many young citrus trees and stress mature ones. “It’s always been a tough crop to grow,” says University of South Carolina professor and culinary historian David Shields. According to USDA guidelines citrus trees are best grown in zones 9-11. The Charleston peninsula sneaks in at zone 9a while the surrounding areas rate an 8. Admittedly, says Mirisciotta, “This is about as far north as you can get with citrus production.”
Nonetheless, he and others believe citrus has a bright future in the Lowcountry. These days, farmers have more sophisticated means of protecting the younger trees during a frost, such as spraying them with water (the more mature the tree, the better chance it has of withstanding a freeze). And certain varieties, such as satsuma mandarins, are more cold hardy than others (see the sidebar on page 95). Plus, says Mirisciotta, “There is still a lot of development and breeding happening with citrus, and there are certain characteristics of fruit to make them more cold hardy.”
Take Georgia, for instance. The Peach State has invested heavily in citrus in recent years, boasting more than 5,000 acres of trees, predominantly mandarins, compared to South Carolina’s five acres (not including home gardeners). Some of the larger producers even distribute nationally, such as Franklin’s Citrus Farm, which specializes in kishu, an easy-to-peel satsuma mandarin variety marketed as “Sweet Georgia Kisses.” Hershell Boyd, owner of Madison Citrus, a nursery in Ray City, Georgia, credits the state’s infrastructure, including two packing houses, for the industry’s success.
Georgia’s bid for satsuma supremacy comes at a time when the behemoth orange industry to its south is suffering. Since 2005, Florida has been battling huanglongbing (HLB), or “greening,” an incurable disease spread by the invasive Asian citrus psyllid. Trees that are infected can’t absorb nutrients, withering and dying within a few years. The bug has been found in every commercial citrus-producing state, but it’s spread most rapidly in Florida. (The USDA discovered the disease in Charleston in 2008 and has quarantined Charleston, Beaufort, and Colleton counties, meaning no citrus trees can leave the area.) More than $1 billion has been spent to eradicate HLB in the US, and while some progress has been made, production in the Sunshine State has declined by 80 percent since the bug first appeared. “The industry in Florida has been devastated,” says Boyd. He adds that the state’s real estate market in recent years hasn’t helped matters. “The land is more valuable for housing than it is for citrus production.”
“When a farmer or homeowner asks, ‘Does citrus do well?’ we can say, ‘Yes, but this variety on this root stock does a lot better than this variety on this root stock.” —Zack Snipes, Clemson Extension
To be sure, Georgia is no Florida in terms of production, but growers there have managed to carve out a niche. It’s a lead South Carolina can follow if Zack Snipes has anything to do with it. Along with Clemson horticulture professor Juan Carlos Melgar, the commercial fruit and vegetable agent for Clemson Extension is measuring cold tolerance in 34 varieties of citrus trees, from finger lime to variegated Minneola, planted at the Clemson Coastal Research and Education Farm in West Ashley, one of six such outposts around the state. The goal of the study is to more accurately predict which varieties will best withstand cold temperatures and under what conditions. “When a farmer or homeowner asks, ‘Does citrus do well?’ we can say, ‘Yes, but this variety on this root stock does a lot better than this variety on this root stock.’”
Beyond helping home gardeners grow exotic trees, the findings can have implications for the future of land use in the Lowcountry. Snipes works with the Center for Heirs Property to help educate its clients, many of whom struggle to pay taxes on their homes, on how to make their land more productive. Enter citrus: one mature grapefruit tree, for example, will produce 300 to 500 fruit a year. “If you’ve got five trees and each fruit is worth a dollar, that pays your taxes for your land,” says Snipes. “We’re trying to show them you can do little things like this to keep that land in your family versus selling it to a developer.”
One farmer isn’t waiting for the study’s results. Harleston Towles, who grows vegetables on 15 acres on Edisto, is banking on an unorthodox approach to growing citrus. He plans to plant 200 trees this spring, including satsuma, Meyer lemon, and ruby red grapefruit, amid two acres of thinned-out pine trees. Bucking the conventional wisdom that citrus needs full sun, Towles says the plan grew partly out of necessity since a conservation easement on his land doesn’t allow him to clear it.
But his research has surfaced a host of benefits of growing citrus in dappled shade. “Frost protection was the original intention,” he says. “Citrus is a natural understory tree. When it grows wild, it grows under a canopy of much taller trees.” He also points to a promising study from Florida that found wild citrus trees growing under pine and oaks were largely unaffected by HLB. What’s more, when researchers introduced shade in a grove already infected with the bug, trees that were sick improved within a year.
“That reinforced our model,” Towles says, adding that extension agent Snipes is onboard as well. “Zack thinks we’re going to have way more fruit than we can handle,” he says. “I think it could change the game going forward for citrus—here, there, and everywhere.”
(Left to right) Edisto farmer Harleston Towles is experimenting with planting satsuma, Meyer lemon, and ruby red grapefruit under a canopy of thinned-out pine trees, which will help protect against frost; Snipes shows off a satsuma mandarin at the Clemson grove; Commercial fruit and vegetable agent Zack Snipes has planted 34 varieties of citrus at Clemson Coastal Research and Education Farm in West Ashley to study their cold tolerance.
Grow Your Own - Tips on cultivating citrus
The first thing Clemson Extension horticulture agent Chris Burrt tells home gardeners who are considering planting a citrus tree is to find the right space for it. Contrary to what most people think, he says, “Citrus doesn’t need full sun, but it’ll do better if it has more sun than less,” Burtt says. “If you don’t have a yard, a porch is another option.”
Some gardeners dream of plucking lemons from their tree for drinks or eating just-picked grapefruit for breakfast, but for the undecided, he suggests the path of least resistance: “I generally start off talking about mandarins. The satsuma mandarin is the most cold-tolerant citrus (down to 14 degrees). It produces a small fruit that’s very easy to peel, and they do well in containers,” he says. “As a gateway, it’s great.” Here, Burtt shares more tips for citrus success:
Citrus is a big drinker: Burtt says trees on average need one and a half inches of water a week when fruiting. Normal rainfall usually suffices, but during droughts, it’s important to supplement with regular watering. For new plants, the University of Florida (UF)—the last word when it comes to all things citrus—recommends eight to 10 gallons twice a week. Once the tree is established, the less it needs, making weekly watering sufficient. Burtt keeps a rain gauge in his garden and journal to keep track of precipitation. “It’s a really good practice no matter what you’re growing,” he notes.
Citrus are very productive plants so it’s important to keep them as happy as possible. That means fertilizer—and lots of it. UF encourages heavy feeding, up to five times a year. Burtt is more conservative with his own trees, saying, “I feed probably three times a year. And once a tree’s established, we’re not fertilizing as much.”
Prune in Spring
Burtt suggests pruning once a year, in the early spring or late winter. Don’t fret about snipping branches that have blossoms on them. In the first two years, he picks most fruit off the tree to encourage growth. “I want to make sure the tree is allocating its resources to growing roots as opposed to fruit development.”
Protect from Frost
Come winter, keep an eye on how low the mercury is expected to dip at night. Lemons and limes are the most cold-sensitive citrus and can handle very little time (an hour or two) below 32 degrees; the limit for oranges and grapefruit is roughly 28 degrees; and mandarins, calamondins, and kumquats can survive down to 18 degrees. “Anything below 18, most citrus trees are going to struggle.” Of course, other factors play into surviving a frost, including exposure to wind. Burtt encourages gardeners to use frost cloth, rather than tarps or plastic, for protection. “If you overwinter citrus for a couple years, you get used to being able to tell [what needs protecting],” he says. “I don’t think about my mandarins. I mostly focus on my Persian lime and Meyer lemon.”
Recipes - When life gives you lemons or oranges, grapefruits, or limes
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Image credits: Amanda Bouknight; SC Department of Archives & History; John McCrady Plat Collection held by the Charleston County Register of Deeds Office; Library of Congress; Peter Frank Edwards; Michelle Becker; & Gayle Brooker; C. Teubner.