BROOKSVILLE — As we enter the forest behind the stately Chinsegut Hill estate east of Brooksville, shafts of filtered sunlight penetrate the canopy of oaks, illuminating the wild citrus fruits overhead; the scores of tangerines on one tree glow like little orange stars.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” asked Joshua McAdams, who leads nature walks on a trail he built on the historic grounds sitting high above Hernando County 270 feet above sea level.
The citrus — oranges of several varieties, tangerines and grapefruit — are almost like pets, to McAdams, who touches the fruit as we walk, praising its colors, healthy skin and bright, smooth leaves. It’s not the same as commercial citrus in Florida, he says, which in recent years has suffered mightily from a disease known as citrus greening.
The citrus at the 170-year-old estate, which McAdams said is the oldest plantation still standing in Florida, is descended from trees farmed on the hill more than a century ago, McAdams said. The citrus is isolated and the trees don’t get watered by humans, or fertilized or sprayed with chemicals.
“Just look at this,” he said, using shears to cut an orange from a tree, slicing it open with the knife on his belt. “Look at the color and the juice content.”
He hands me a piece to taste, warning me that it may be a little tart compared to “store-bought,” but that “it’s the way citrus is supposed to taste.”
It was a little tart on the backside, but not before the juice woke the taste buds with a flood of bright, orange sweetness.
People who visit the forest when the fruit is ripe are permitted to sample a few, said McAdams, as long as they don’t get greedy. He said a half-dozen is fine, but be sure to stop by the Chinsegut manor house and museum to donate a little to tour the house and support the nonprofit group that maintains the facility, which welcomes corporate and group events and rents cabin retreats on the grounds.
Wild citrus is not uncommon, and can be found in wooded areas around the county wherever there may have been a citrus farm nearby, said McAdams.
It’s something of a mystery to some that it survives so well and doesn’t suffer from disease or insects, but McAdams believes the wild trees are simply “adapted” and stronger.
“It shows that left alone, there are trees that can do fine all on their own,” he said, adding that he believes people should plant citrus at home, preferably using the seeds harvested from wild trees.
“We’ve lost 85 percent of the commercial citrus in Florida,” said McAdams, who would like to see a revival through new plantings. Hurricanes, frost, disease and ignorance are among the reasons, he said.
His enthusiasm for new plantings in residential settings goes against the recommendations of some experts, who avoid suggesting citrus these days due to the greening problem.
“Citrus is almost something given up on,” McAdams said. “But we have a responsibility to keep trying; if it doesn’t work, you try again.”
McAdams said it’s a shame that we see California citrus in our local stores.
“It just doesn’t seem right,” he said.
McAdams built the nature trail through the Chinsegut forest in 2015, his initial focus and interest was to educate people about mushrooms and fungi, which he considers essential to our ecosystem. As time went by, his passion for the wild citrus grew, and reminded him of his youth.
“I grew up running through citrus groves,” McAdams said.
Citrus has many uses beyond a snack or juice, he said. It can be used in meat marinades, the ground and dried peels as cooking seasoning, for making candied peels or flavoring homemade chocolate. A fresh-cut end of a citrus stem makes a great toothbrush, as it’s antibacterial, he said.
He also believes eating citrus is a great disease fighter and good for overall health.
“I eat it in the morning not just to eat it, but for its medicinal value,” McAdams said.