GULF BREEZE — A highly contagious disease that could radically damage citrus tree growth has been found in the Florida Panhandle, agriculture officials said.
The first case of citrus canker in northwest Florida was recently confirmed in Santa Rosa County, the Pensacola News Journal reported. The disease is transmitted by a bacterial pathogen and harms healthy citrus trees, causing fruit to drop prematurely. It has previously been seen in south and central Florida.
Blake Thaxton, a commercial horticulture agent with the Santa Rosa County Extension Agency, said it’s unlikely there is just one Panhandle case of the disease.
“We’re pretty sure that there’s more out there,” Thaxton said.
County officials are working to schedule a removal day for infected plants or a similar effort to stop the spread of the disease, Thaxton said.
Signs of the citrus canker include the presence of lesions on the upper and lower surfaces of the leaves or fruit. The lesions are raised and usually surrounded by yellow halos. Any residents who suspect their trees have a canker infection should call the Division of Plant Industry’s Helpline Center at 888-397-1517.
Thaxton advised gardeners not to try and remove infected plants. Citrus canker can spread through the wind, rain and via people on their hands, clothes and tools.
“If you move it or cut it down yourself and put it out by the road, it’s just going to spread it quicker,” he said. “Every car that drives by can pick it up and move it to another location. It’s better to just leave it now before we have the proper protocol on how to remove it.”
Gardeners are also advised to wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or more to eliminate bacteria on the skin and use alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Any tools that come into contact with citrus trees should be disinfected with a solution of household bleach and water.
If the disease establishes itself in the area by spring, hobby-gardeners may be unable to grow the more susceptible species of citrus altogether.
“Citrus as we know it will never be the same,” Thaxton said. “We’ll always have this problem.”