LOS ANGELES >> The worst disease known to the citrus industry may have arrived in California on a bud of friendship.
A graft of pomelo — a symbol of good fortune and prosperity in many Asian cultures — was the likely source of the state’s first documented case of huanglongbing, a citrus disease with no known cure, say researchers involved in the investigation. The suspected plant shoot, or budwood, was passed freely among San Gabriel Valley church friends who loved to garden and experiment with hybridization, according to residents.
Until a month ago, California was the last major citrus-growing region in the world to avoid a scourge that has decimated groves in China, Brazil and Florida. The disease arrived the way experts had long predicted: in a tree in a Southern California yard. Now, agriculture officials are scrambling to slow the disease’s march north and save a $2 billion industry based in the Central Valley.
Authorities launched a massive containment effort involving quarantines, pesticides and public hearings when a lemon-pomelo tree in Mary Wang’s lush Hacienda Heights yard tested positive for the disease on March 30. The sickly looking tree was quickly removed for study.
Orkin, the pest control company, recently said its agents nationwide are reporting a 30 percent increase in calls to treat ant infestations compared with this time last year. Termite swarms do not normally show up until the end of March, but Orkin received 85 termite-control calls in February.
An Orkin branch in Montgomery County, which serves the District, has already responded to mosquito sightings this year. And the National Pest Management Association, based in Fairfax, issued an early warning of ticks, possibly carrying Lyme disease, lurking in back yards.
County agricultural extension agents across the country are sending out bug alerts to farmers.
“These things are coldblooded,” said Mike Raupp, a professor of entomology at the University of Maryland. “Whenever we have a warm winter, they’re going to be out earlier. How do you stop them? You pray for cold weather.”
A mild winter is not great for all bugs, including some highly beneficial insects. Some were up and about when they should have been idle and hibernating, burning less energy, experts say. When this happens, they gobble the food they stored for the winter and emerge into a world where food is scarce. Many starve.
BY JIM WAYMER
Call it canker on steroids.
Citing ineffective quarantines and other stopgap measures, a new warning from agriculture officials tells homeowners to get rid of backyard citrus trees and stop planting them.
The goal: Stop "citrus greening," which experts say could devastate the state’s $9.3 billion citrus industry.
"It’s the enemy at the doorstep," said Bud Crisafulli of Crisafulli Enterprises, which operates groves on Merritt Island. "If you’re a citrus grower, you’ve got to be concerned about this."
The Asian citrus psyllid spreads the bacteria that causes greening to citrus stems and leaves. While growers stay on the lookout and immediately destroy infected trees, backyard trees often are left to deteriorate and continue the spread of the incurable disease.
Officials acknowledge that convincing people to abandon their orange, grapefruit, lemon and lime trees may be going out on a limb in the Sunshine State, given citrus’ deep roots in Florida culture.
"People are attached to their trees. People love their trees. But citrus greening is a disease that many people have yet faced," said Nolan Lemon, a spokesman with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Trees that would normally thrive 50 to 100 years, you’re looking at them dying within five to 12 years of infection."