Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Lue Gim Gong: past, present

Photo of Lue Gim Gong on ladder at citrus tree
Thanks to Florida Memory for this image
of Lue Gim Gong tending his citrus in DeLand.
Lue Gim Gong is probably one of the most gifted horticulturists you've never heard of.  He was both lauded and derided in his day - late 1800s to early 1900s. Lauded for his botanical prowess, derided for his ethnicity and his eccentricity. Today he is just mostly forgotten - but not in DeLand, where he developed the award-winning Lue Gim Gong orange.

The Chinese immigrant is on my mind because of recent action at the West Volusia Historical Society. The organization's Heritage Gardening Group is launching an effort to save extant Lue Gim Gong orange trees from citrus greening. I'm a member of that group, and excited about the project.

A recent generation of Lue Gim Gong trees grow on the grounds of the society's museum complex. Cuttings from aged trees were budded onto rootstock and planted in a small grove that frames a gazebo. A bronze bust of Lue is displayed in the gazebo. A mural of Lue is also featured prominently on a storefront in downtown DeLand.

I wonder how Lue would approach the greening menace. For sure, he'd be focused on developing a resistant variety. I like to think he'd be successful. Even Lue's detractors acknowledged his horticultural ability, although they took pains to denigrate his orange variety into oblivion.

The Lue Gim Gong orange was noted for its cold-hardiness and for holding its crop on the tree.
Photo of Lue Gim Gong in 1920
This photo of Lue Gim Gong
is from 1920. (Photo credit:
Stetson University)
Lue bred the variety by cross-pollinating Hart's Late and Mediterranean Sweet oranges. The Lue Gim Gong orange was so outstanding it won a national industry award in 1911. Lue died in 1925. His orange also died, in a sense. It was dismissed as insignificant - a minor seedling of the more famous Valencia orange. (The once-named Hart's Late is now considered to have been the Valencia.)

I can't help but question the long-ago campaign to discredit Lue's work. The references I have seen, that label his citrus variety as minor, aren't attributed to a specific scientist or academic study. It's true Valencia holds its oranges on the tree, and is resistant to cold. But Lue's tree - the supporting structure itself - is said to have been far more cold-hardy than any other citrus tree. People clamored for Lue Gim Gong trees in the early 1900s. The trees were distributed by Glen Saint Mary Nursery, except for the many Lue was said to have given away.

The few accounts that remain describe Lue as brilliant, gentle, loyal to his mentor but distant with her siblings, devoted to his pets (two horses and a rooster), and a devout Christian with Confucianist roots. Legend says that, after his death, stacks of uncashed checks were found in the DeLand house he inherited from his mentor and mother-figure, Fannie Burlingame. She, by the way, is worth a blog post of her own.

Lue died penniless, and nearly friendless but for a few neighbors and townsfolk brave enough to challenge their era's bigotries. His horticultural records and journals disappeared. The least we can do is save his trees.

Learn more about Lue Gim Gong. He's worth it:

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