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Still an Enchanted Land?

An orange from the grove suffering from citrus greening. (Sarah Henry/WUFT News)
An orange from the grove suffering from citrus greening. (Sarah Henry/WUFT News)

The trees that drew Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings to Cross Creek—citrus—now imperiled at her former home.

In 1928, writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her husband, Charles, bought a small house and orange grove in Cross Creek, a swampy backwoods south of Gainesville, in search of a life of leisure that would fund their creative careers.  

“They thought the oranges were going to be liquid gold,” said Leslie Poole, an environmental studies professor at Rollins College who has researched Rawlings.  

The challenge of rehabilitating the neglected grove and maintaining the trees proved otherwise. Still, citrus became central not only to Rawlings’ life in Cross Creek but also to her writing.

Much has changed since Rawlings’ death seventy years ago this month, in December 1953 at the age of 57. Florida’s population has grown from 3.3 million to 22 million. Oceans have risen around South Florida’s cities and climate-change fueled hurricanes now barrel the coasts. Yet Rawlings’ house always remained a haven, tucked away behind canopies of magnolia, live oak and her beloved citrus trees.

Today, citrus groves all over the state face threats from disease and more extreme weather. Florida’s 1953-1954 citrus season brought in over 91 million boxes of oranges, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This season, the expected harvest is only 20.5 million boxes.  

In Rawlings’ orange grove, Park Ranger Geoff Gates battles another year of citrus greening disease. When Gates started working at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Park about seven years ago, he immediately recognized the signs of the disease on the property.

“We thought we saw serious symptoms of greening,” he said. “But nobody wanted to admit to that because it’s so devastating.”

Citrus greening, also known as huanglongbing or HLB, primarily spreads through a disease-infected bug called a citrus psyllid.

“When that insect bites into a leaf, it injects the bacteria into the tree and that’s it,” Gates said. “The tree is going to die.” 

Psyllids thrive in temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Michael Rogers, an entomology professor and the director of the University of Florida’s IFAS Citrus Research & Education Center in Central Florida’s Lake Alfred. 

“Once we get above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, psyllids tend not to live as long and lay fewer eggs,” Rogers said. 

So Florida’s rising temperatures may tamp down the greening bug. But the heat also puts a strain on the grove. 

“This last year was very hot and unusually dry. We didn’t get our usual rains,” Gates said.  “There’s nothing worse for these trees than that: heat and dryness.”

MKR State Park caretakers tried different solutions for quelling the spread of greening. UF/IFAS scientists suggested a three-part strategy: fertilizer, compost and water. Volunteers and employees wheelbarrowed in four inches of compost for each tree in the grove from a 14-foot-tall pile on the property. 

Compost, Gates said, helps stimulate the root system and gives the trees nutrients they need to stay healthy. 

The trees got the compost treatment three years ago, and they are still sprayed with fertilizer weekly. It’s costly and labor intensive. And none of it has been enough to recover Rawlings’ grove.

“Some of our very best trees are gone this last year,” Gates said. “This year was the worst year I’ve ever seen for greening here.”

In her beloved cookbook, Cross Creek Cookery, Rawlings writes about one of her favorite Christmas desserts, harvested from her own crop: tangerine sherbet. Gates, inspired by Rawlings, used to make gallons of it. 

“Since three years ago, I don’t think there’s been a single viable tangerine on those trees,” he said. “It would break her heart.” 

Ann McCutchan, author of the Rawlings’ biography The Life She Wished to Live, noted how the grove nurtured the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s writing practice. 

“Oranges were a large part of the world out of which she wrote,” McCutchan said. “The magnolia tree, the lakes, the rivers, they are all part of the grove in a way,” McCutchan said. “That’s where she planted herself and then all of that writing came out.”

Rawlings’ stories are ripe with admiration for the home she found between the oak hammocks and sand pine scrub. 

“Enchantment lies in different things for each of us,” Rawlings wrote in her memoir, Cross Creek. “For me, it is in this: to step out of the bright sunlight into the shade of orange trees; to walk under the arched canopy of their jadelike leaves; to see the long aisles of lichened trunks stretch ahead in a geometric rhythm; to feel the mystery of a seclusion that yet has shafts of light striking through it. This is the essence of an ancient and secret magic.”

But the heartache that comes with all great love also found its place in her enchanted land. 

After moving in, she hired a staff of grove workers to manage the trees through decimating freezes and fruit fly infestations. It was a hefty expense. Farm equipment and fertilizer did not come cheaply, McCutchan said. 

In a letter to a friend, Rawlings wrote, “we are hovering on the brink of financial disaster.”

Like Gates, Rawlings had citrus experts from UF evaluate her trees. Then, as now, they prescribed fertilizer treatments and heightened attention. 

“She was such a determined, independent minded woman,” McCutchan said. “Any challenge would fuel her and would be well met.” 

While researching her biography McCutchan found formulas for fertilizer on the back of Rawlings’ writing notes. 

“The two challenges maybe rubbed up on each other in a way,” McCutchan said. “Sort of a friction that yielded good work.” 

Every year, Poole takes her graduate students to the MKR park where she teaches a class on Florida’s “Three Marjories”: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Marjorie Harris Carr. 

“What Rawlings did in her writing was open the eyes of the rest of the country to the rural beauty of Florida,” Poole said. “While she may not have been what we would consider an environmental activist today, she is the person who helped us remember how beautiful it is and how it’s worth saving.”

Saving is just what Gates is trying to do. 

The park’s orange groves hold the memory of what Rawlings called the “real Florida.” For visitors, the park is a look into pre-developed Florida: wild, secluded and teeming with life. 

“It’s a very important part of our story here, our history,” Gates said. “For a lot of guests, that magic moment is when they pick an orange for the first time.”

For now, the park’s staff and volunteers carry on, keeping that memory, and the remaining healthy citrus trees, alive. 

Sarah is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing