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The Citrus Wizard of Florida

Pictured here with his pet rooster, March, Lue Gim Gong’s work with citrus trees helped develop a frost-tolerant orange after a disastrous winter in Florida.

Pictured here with his pet rooster, March, Lue Gim Gong’s work with citrus trees helped develop a frost-tolerant orange after a disastrous winter in Florida.

No one should live in this world for himself alone, but to do good for those who come after him.

These are the words that Lue Gim Gong lived by.  When he was only 12 years old, Lue left his home and farmer parents in Canton, China and crossed the Pacific Ocean to America.  He lived and worked in San Francisco until he was 16, and then moved to Massachusetts to take a job at the C.T. Sampson shoe factory.

At church, Lue met Fannie Burlingame, the daughter of a wealthy farmer and merchant.  She immediately recognized his desire to learn and his natural talent with plants.   He eventually came to live with her family and they helped him become an American citizen in 1877.

Along with his green thumb, Lue had a knack for storytelling and a way with animals.  While his personality and desire to learn were larger than life, his body was frail and at some point in his youth he became very ill, possibly with tuberculosis.  His condition was made worse by the cold New England climate, so Fannie suggested he move to DeLand, Florida, where she and her sister owned a house and orchard. Working with William Dumville, Fannie’s brother-in-law, Lue planted orange trees and other fruits, immersing himself in the world of horticulture.

In the winter of 1894-95, Florida saw some of the worst freezes in recorded history.  Almost all of the citrus groves were lost—including the ones worked by Lue and Dumville.  Lue’s experiments in cross-pollination became focused on producing fruits that were more tolerant of cold weather.

Fannie passed away in 1903, leaving Lue the house and property in DeLand.  Devastated by the loss of “Mother Fannie,” Lue became a bit of an eccentric fixture in the small Florida community.  His pet rooster, March, and two horses named Baby and Fannie were his main companions, but his work with plant varieties continued.

In 1911, he was recognized for successfully cross-pollinated a “Hart’s Late” Valencia orange with a “Mediterranean Sweet” to produce a new orange named the “Lue Gim Gong.”  This sweet new variation, later found to be a nucellar seedling of the Valencia, ripened in the early fall and was much more resistant to the cold.  It is sold under the Valencia name today.

His achievement won the Silver Wilder Medal, awarded by the American Pomological Society—the first such award for a citrus fruit.

Lue also developed an apple that ripened a month earlier than other varieties, tomatoes that grew in clusters, and a peach that would ripen in late November.  His continued efforts with citrus plants also produced varieties of grapefruits that grew singularly (instead of in clumps), a cold-tolerant grapefruit that was slower to drop and a “perfumed” variety that had a heavy fragrance.

Lue’s conviction to do lasting good changed the Florida citrus industry and broadened the seasonal range for many orchard-grown trees.  While his life was lived simply and mostly outside of the limelight, he certainly did his best to create something good for the generations of farmers that came after him.

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), celebrates the life of Lue Gim Gong and spirit of the words he lived by.  From our programs that support farmers and ranchers of all sizes to our role in bringing food to U.S. troops, we strive to do good for those around us and those who will come after us.

2 Responses to “The Citrus Wizard of Florida”

  1. michael sussman says:

    really nice story about a wonderful man and an important development in agriculture.

  2. Gary N. says:

    What a great story! And, inspiring too!

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