Rootstock Offers High Hopes for HLB Tolerance, Maybe Resistance

Tacy Callies Rootstocks

A 2-year-old tree on a Sugar Belle hybrid rootstock is growing normally despite having been infected by HLB.

The new Sugar Belle hybrid rootstock LB8-9xS13#16 has quite a history, according to University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences citrus breeder Jude Grosser. 

“This is one of several projects I did with Orie Lee toward the end of his Florida Citrus Hall of Fame career/life,” recalls Grosser. “We did a lot of brainstorming together, and he was full of ideas and the energy to make them become a reality!”

Before HLB became the dominant scourge of Florida citrus, Grosser was heavily invested in trying to solve blight. Lee had a great interest in blight, because in several of his most productive blocks the annual tree loss to blight was about 12 percent. 

“Evidence was showing that pummelo x mandarin hybrids had superior blight tolerance as compared to other rootstock categories, so I made a lot of pummelo x mandarin hybrids,” says Grosser. “Orie was in a hurry to plant rootstock hybrids to test for blight tolerance, and he had just planted a large block at the Alligator Grove. He suggested we plant trees in between each of the planted trees. We made cuttings from about 125 new rootstock hybrids and we tried to get at least seven liners for each rootstock.  We grafted them all with Valencia and planted them one year after the original grove was planted — about 12 years ago.”

According to Grosser, the Alligator Grove has never had psyllid control, and about four years after planting, it was evident that nearly all the trees were infected with HLB. “For the past six years, I have been scoring the individual trees for HLB. There were only two of the trees on the S13 parent (salt tolerant HB pummelo x Cleo). During the 2020 scoring, this hybrid had the highest tree health rating (4.25 out of 5), indicating very good ability to transmit HLB tolerance from the rootstock to the Valencia scion,” he explains.

Grosser says it has become evident from multiple trials that Sugar Belle has exceptional HLB tolerance no matter what rootstock it is grown on. “I thought that maybe we could flip this equation and develop a rootstock that any scion could grow on in the presence of HLB,” he says. “Sugar Belle is not used as a rootstock because it does not come back true-to-type from seed and is purported to be susceptible to phytophthora.”

So, Grosser decided to use Sugar Belle as a rootstock breeding parent to test his hypothesis. He made the first crosses with Sugar Belle in 2015, using a salt-tolerant HB pummelo x Cleo hybrid (S13) and a salt-tolerant HB pummelo x Shekwasha (S10) as the pollen parents. 

Since then, Grosser has made other crosses using Sugar Belle. As the rootstocks progressed through the screening process, he says one hybrid jumped ahead of the others. So, he planted two trees at the Citrus Research and Education Center (CREC). 

“I planted the hybrid #16 tree on the corner of Block 8, just behind our barn, so I could watch it every time I drove up the road to my greenhouses or field plots. I noticed that psyllids were feeding on the tree during every new flush (despite the CREC spray program), and there was visible psyllid damage on leaves from all flushes,” says Grosser. “Despite starting infected and continuous psyllid re-inoculation, this tree has grown off like a normal pre-HLB tree and looks beautiful today, two years after planting.  It has set some fruit, so I will begin to get an idea of fruit quality this coming fall.” 

Grosser says the second tree, on a different hybrid, is doing okay, but nothing like #16. 

“After what I saw the first year, I grafted an infected Murcott (the most HLB-susceptible variety) onto the rootstock and planted it, and it is also growing incredibly well,” he says. “The Murcott tree is now one year old. We tested the original Valencia tree by PCR in December, and the scion had a ct value of 24, indicating a high titer of CLas (the causal agent of HLB); whereas the roots had a ct value of 32, indicating no active infection. We tested this tree again in April, and the ct value went up to 36, indicating no active infection. So, even starting out infected and under heavy psyllid pressure, the rootstock seems to have suppressed the infection, allowing the tree to thrive.”

Although it has only been two years from planting, Grosser is hopeful that the “HLB tolerance, maybe resistance, holds up over time (like it seems to be doing with its parents). I have pathogen-free material of this rootstock, and we are now making cuttings as needed for large-scale evaluations. We have also started this rootstock in tissue culture for micropropagation.”

Learn more about Grosser’s recent rootstock research.

About the Author

Tacy Callies

Editor of Citrus Industry magazine