UF's Sugar Belle is sweet success
Sugar Belle, a name meaning sweet and beautiful, is the first University of Florida-created citrus variety intended for commercial production.
Fred Gmitter, UF professor of citrus breeding and genetics, worked many years for Sugar Belle, a bold mandarin orange hybrid, to be where it is today.
Hired in 1985 as a UF assistant professor, Gmitter soon noticed a neglected block of trees left behind by a retired professor.
“I tasted (the fruit on) every tree—most were horrible,” said Gmitter. “Then I tasted fruit from this one tree and it was phenomenal.” The tree is now known as Sugar Belle.
Gmitter then began propagating the tree, knowing that he had found a valuable citrus selection.
One of the first large-scale field trials was on the east coast of Florida.
But after growing for a few years, a setback occurred. Citrus canker, a highly contagious disease that attacks fruit, was found near the trees. The entire group had to be burned.
“That was really devastating,” Gmitter said.
That didn’t stop the determined Gmitter and soon, after producing more crops, taste trials began. Sugar Belle won “big-time” as the favorite among the taste-testers, he said.
It is a very bold, rich-tasting citrus with high levels of sugar. “Makes you happy when you eat it,” he said.
Sugar Belle has numerous benefits that make it stand out from other competitors. It has a high percentage of vitamin C, ripens four to six weeks earlier than other varieties of citrus and it has shown a greater tolerance to the fungus Alternaria.
After long hours and hard work, Gmitter is really satisfied with Sugar Belle. But now the rest is out of his hands.
“It’s like when you first take your kids to kindergarten. You are still attached but you have to let them go—I have that feeling about Sugar Belle,” said Gmitter. “Didn’t expect that feeling, but it’s strange. It’s like having a 25-year-old kid.”
- Jenna McVey