Why leaf flush affects citrus quality and yield, and how to manage it better.

Citrus trees are a crop that put out multiple flushes of leaf growth during the season. Leaf flush creates large spikes in phyto-hormone levels in the tree and this can impact on yield and quality. Here we discuss how managing nitrogen and calcium applications to citrus can help manage this and increase yield and quality.

To understand why citrus crops produce flushes we need to look closely at the physiology of the crop. Leaves on citrus plants have limited ‘shelf’ life whereby the ability to photosynthesise reduces dramatically as the leaves age. By the time leaves reach 40-50 days old they have lost most of there ability to photosynthesise and if not replaced with new leaves the tree can not produce enough food to support itself. This is why citrus plants have leaf flushes, to allow them to maintain photosynthesis at adequate levels.

Yield of all crops is directly related to the level of photosynthesis, so maintaining good levels of photosynthesis to power growth of the crop is very important. This presents citrus growers with some challenges as by nature the crop has major fluxes in photosynthesis. Helping the crop through dips and stretching the period of useful life from leaves can pay major dividends in yields.

To make new leaves the plant has to produce new cells, and this cell division is powered by the growth hormone auxin. This means that leaf flush is accompanied by large spike in production of auxins, which are synthesised in foliage.

This spike in auxin levels during leaf flush has negative effects on root function, effectively causing root growth to cease for week during each flush. It also creates a large sink for calcium in the foliage making developing fruit vulnerable to deficiency. The main driver in this is Nitrogen.

Research shows that the best form of nitrogen for foliar citrus applications is amine nitrogen (urea), but getting urea into citrus leaves is a wasteful process with as much as half of all foliar applied urea volatilising before the plant can absorb it.

Lono uses LimiN technology developed by Levity CropScience to hold amine nitrogen in the amine form, allowing low doses to give very effective fertilisation. Because Lono is stable, the nitrogen is taken up in the form it is applied in, having a big impact on photosynthesis. Research on a wide range of crops shows that Lono increases photosynthesis where conventional nitrogen applications reduce it in the period following application.
Applications of SizeN during leaf flush are an excellent way to support photosynthesis and maintain yields.

Nitrogen form dictates where citrus crops allocate growth.

Nitrogen form has an impact on where crops grow, with nitrates encouraging vegetative growth and amine forms encouraging reproductive growth and root development. Farmers do not get the benefits of this as the majority of nitrogen is taken up as nitrate as it changes form in the environment.

Levity’s research on citrus crops show that targeted applications of Amine-N can reduce excess shoot growth on citrus and allow the crop to produce bigger and better fruit yields.

In trials in South Africa on the Cara Cara variety far less pruning was required on trees treated with Lono, and this resulted in significantly better yields. This is due to the influence of Lono on growth partitioning – where the plant grows.
Here we see control (above left) which has had the standard fertilizer programme, and the same programme plus SizeN (above right). Far less pruning was necessary. Below we see the fruit development later in the season where the treated block (right) had significantly better yields.

During flushes there is a spike in calcium requirement, this needs management to avoid fruit drop and quality problems.

When citrus trees have leaf flushes large amounts of auxins are synthesised in the foliage, the plant uses this to power the cell division needed to create new leaves. Calcium movement in crops is through xylem, always in the direction of water movement.

Calcium absorption is linked to polar auxin transport. This means that during leaf flush a large sink is created for calcium in the foliage leading to competition for the calcium available to the crop. This makes it very hard for flowers and fruit to access calcium during leaf flush and the main driver in fruit and flower shedding in citrus crops.

For agronomy on citrus this has important implications. Firstly it means the overall calcium requirement is high during flush, this is why use of foliar Lono applications have been very effective at reducing fruit drop, providing Amine N and calcium during peak demand when roots can not keep up with demand.

Secondly it makes it very difficult to maintain good calcium levels in fruit, as fruit are naturally low in auxins they can’t absorb calcium well. This is amplified during flushes where roots switch off (limiting supply) and demand is increased in foliage leaving the fruit struggling to access calcium.

Conventional Foliar calcium sprays are ineffective at raising fruit quality as applying calcium to fruit has limited impact because they have insufficient auxin levels to absorb calcium well no matter how much is applied.

This is where use of products containing Levity’s LoCal technology can help. This chemistry allows parts of plants less able to absorb calcium (like citrus fruits) to properly absorb it. Use of Albina during the season ensures good fruit calcium levels and can help reduce wrinkling and albedo breakdown, safeguarding quality.

Recommendations

  1. Foliar apply 5 litres per hectare Lono Plus to trees 4-5 times a season. Starting 30 days before flowering then timing to hit leaf flushes.
  2. Follow up with a 1 litre per hectare foliar application of Albina during flowering,  with further applications 40, and 20 days ahead of harvest.