Transporting citrus plant material into Texas is not only a threat to the state's citrus industry, it is also against the law, said a Texas AgriLife Extension Service citrus expert.

“Fortunately, Texas is still free of the major citrus diseases that are ravaging Florida and several citrus producing countries, but it is up to all of us to help keep it that way as those diseases cannot travel on their own,” said Dr. Julian Sauls, an AgriLife Extension citrus specialist in Weslaco.

High on the list of unwanted citrus diseases in Texas is citrus greening, Sauls said. Greening is a bacterial disease that prevents citrus from maturing on trees, eventually killing them. Surveys of residential trees and commercial orchards have not found the disease in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, but they have detected the presence of Asian citrus psyllid, the pest that spreads greening among citrus trees.

“Even one infected insect or plant from Louisiana or Florida could have a devastating impact on the Texas industry,” Sauls said.

Once citrus greening disease was verified in the neighboring state of Louisiana, the Texas Department of Agriculture ramped up its efforts to keep all citrus plants out of Texas, according to Dr. Robert Crocker, the department's coordinator for pest management and citrus programs.

“As the state's agricultural regulatory agency, we've quarantined all areas outside of Texas,” he said. “With very few exceptions, no citrus plants, or even pieces of citrus plants are allowed into the state from anywhere. The notable exception is that commercial citrus fruit is allowed to enter Texas if it's not from an area like Florida that has one of the few diseases that might be transmitted on the fruit.”

Crocker said state laws and regulations prohibiting citrus plant movement into Texas have been constantly updated and strengthened for years to protect the state's citrus industry.

“TDA has defined the state's commercial citrus zone as consisting of Brooks, Cameron, Hidalgo, Jim Hogg, Kenedy, Starr, Willacy and Zapata counties. Those eight counties that make up the very southern tip of Texas are where commercial citrus is produced for sale,” he said. “That's the area we're trying hardest to protect. In fact, not even citrus trees produced in other parts of the state can be moved into that area without a special permit.”

Breaking the state's citrus laws could result in serious consequences for offenders, Crocker said.

“Violations of the quarantine can be punished with fines of up to $5,000 per day per violation,” he said. “There is also the potential for criminal penalties. We don't want a porous border to allow greening to get into the state when it could have been prevented.”

To enforce the laws, Crocker said, state inspectors are manning road stations to check for illicitly imported citrus plants.

“Texas Department of Public Safety troopers are working with us to check trucks and other vehicles that might be carrying loads of citrus plants into Texas,” he said. “TDA invested 7,214 man-hours last year in enforcement of citrus and other quarantines at road stations in 28 locations around the state. This was an increase over the previous year due to additional funding appropriated by the state legislature.

Crocker said inspectors are also checking stores and garden centers.

“We inspect any retail outlets to make sure they are selling legitimate citrus plants,” he said. “We also check flea markets where small operators may not be as professional or as informed about the laws as they should be,” he said.

The Texas Department of Agriculture has 83 regulatory inspectors who work in the enforcement of citrus and nursery-floral regulations, Crocker said.

In addition, the department is asking for the public's help in reporting suspicious citrus plant material they might encounter at stores, markets and roadside stands. Tips from observant citizens are an important source of leads for the department, he said.

Complaints can be made by calling the department's toll-free number: 1-800-TELL TDA, or 1-800-835-5832.

“We're also asking the public to buy only citrus plants that are labeled as having been produced in the state of Texas,” he said. “If anybody sees plants that they think are here illegally, they can report them either anonymously or by leaving their names. Either way, all reports will be investigated with the same seriousness.”

Any plants illegally brought to Texas will be sent back to the point of origin or destroyed, he said.

“The department recently oversaw the destruction of several thousand plants that were produced in Texas but were found to have one of the quarantined diseases,” Crocker said. “It wasn't one of the most threatening diseases, canker or greening, but we don't want citrus plants sold that have diseases of any kind. The infected citrus plants could not be cured and were ground up and destroyed by their owner.”

Over the years, Texas has been remarkably free of most diseases transmitted by grafting or by insects, said Dr. John da Graca, director of the Texas A&M-Kingsville Citrus Center in Weslaco.

“One way to keep Texas disease-free is to ensure that all new trees are propagated from pathogen-free budwood,” da Graca said. “Another is to follow state laws and not bring citrus plants or other prohibited material into Texas from other states. Prohibited materials would include budwood, cuttings, potted plants and seeds. Importing orange jessamine or other relatives of citrus is also prohibited.”

Sauls said protecting Texas citrus is protecting a way of life in South Texas.

“Citrus is a major factor that helps make South Texas so unique, not to mention the millions it adds to our local economy,” he said. “But just one disease- or insect-infested plant brought into the state by an unknowing or unconcerned individual could devastate our industry.”