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Citrus Disease Discovery in Los Angeles County Has Local Ag Officials on Heightened Alert

'Greening' disease, spread by a tiny flying insect, could devastate commercial and backyard trees in Santa Barbara County

Santa Barbara County agriculture officials are urging commercial growers and backyard farmers to be extra alert for signs of a deadly citrus disease — and the tiny bug that spreads it — after a tree in Southern California was found to be infected late last month.

Three life forms of the Asian citrus psyllid: From right, adult, nymph with secretions, and eggs.
Three life forms of the Asian citrus psyllid: From right, adult, nymph with secretions, and eggs. (Agriculture Department photos)

The plant malady, a bacterial disease sometimes called “citrus greening” but known formally as huanglongbing (HLB), is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, and has caused major losses in orchards in Florida and other Southern states, and in South America.

The March 22 discovery of an infected lemon/pommelo in the Hacienda Heights area of Los Angeles County has Santa Barbara County ag officials renewing their call for vigilance here.

“It’s really a major concern,” said Brian Cabrera, an entomologist with the county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office. “This has wreaked a lot of havoc on the citrus industry in Florida. They’ve had tremendous losses.”

The disease, which does not pose any threat to humans or animals, attacks the vascular system of plants. Diseased trees produce bitter, inedible, misshapen fruit.

Once a tree is infected, there is no cure, and it typically declines and dies within a few years.

Signs of HLB can take up to two years to show up in a tree, Cabrera noted, so the best line of defense is to be watchful for evidence of the psyllids.

Adult psyllids are small, brownish insects that are similar in size to an aphid, according to the state Citrus Research Board. They feed with their heads down, almost touching the surface of the leaf.

Nymphs are dull orange, have red eyes, and produce waxy tubules that direct honeydew away from their bodies. They can be difficult to see because they are small and flatten themselves against twigs and leaves.

Their tiny eggs are bright yellow-orange and almond shaped, and appear in groups on the newest, most tender, unfolded leaves.

The Citrus Research Board recommends inspecting citrus trees monthly, or whenever watering, spraying, pruning or tending them.

People who suspect their trees may be infested with the psyllid can bring sample vegetation — some leaves or a small branch — to Agricultural Commissioner’s offices at 941 Walnut Ave. in Carpinteria, 401 E. Cypress St. in Lompoc, 263 Camino del Remedio in Santa Barbara, 624 W. Foster Road in Santa Maria or 1745 Mission Drive in Solvang. For more information, call 805.661.5600 on the South Coast or 805.934.6200 in the North County.

Santa Barbara County already is under a partial quarantine for citrus, after psyllids were found in La Conchita and Santa Paula in Ventura County in 2010. The quarantine area covers all of Santa Barbara County south and east of Highway 154, Cabrera said, noting that the quarantine is related to a find in La Conchita just east of Carpinteria.

The quarantine prohibits the movement of nursery citrus stock out of the area, and requires that all citrus fruit be cleaned of leaves and stems prior to transport, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Cabrera noted that county personnel inspect citrus shipments at local nurseries, as well as shippers such as FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service.

California has more than 267,000 acres of commercial citrus orchards, with a total crop value in 2010-2011 exceeding $1.3 billion. In Santa Barbara County, lemons are the significant commercial citrus crop, with a total value of more than $12.7 million in 2010, the last year for which figures are available.

Citrus trees of all sorts are popular with backyard growers locally, as they are throughout much of the state, and ag officials worry that this largely unregulated source may pose the greatest threat for spreading the disease.

“They are such an icon in Southern California,” Cabrera noted. “Can you imagine if suddenly they were all dying?”

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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