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Citrus State of Mind: A grove thrives on the banks of the Waccamaw River

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Grow a sweeter orange, and the world will beat a path to your door.

South Carolina orange growers came to Henry Culberson’s grove on the river in Hagley Estates Saturday and loved every minute of it.

Culberson is a self-styled carpenter, gardener, surfer and boat builder who has transformed a wooded tract of land on the Waccamaw River into something resembling a jungle paradise.

“I think it’s magnificent,” said Stan McKenzie of Scranton, near Lake City. “It’s just breathtaking, one of the most unique places I’ve ever seen.”

McKenzie led a group of about two dozen “citrusholics” from the Southeastern Citrus Expo’s annual meeting in Myrtle Beach on a field trip to visit Culberson, who keeps bees and has something growing in his garden year round: grapes, sweet potatoes, bananas, grapefruit, lemons and, of course, oranges.

McKenzie said the Citrus Expo’s goal is to spread the word that coastal South Carolina, and even as far inland as Lake City, can be big orange country.

He sold Culberson some of his 42 orange trees.

“He’d started with citrus before he came over to me,” McKenzie said. “He’s become a really good grower since then. It’s just beautiful. I told people you don’t want to miss this expo. It will look like you landed in Costa Rica. You can’t find fruit in the grocery stores to compare with what Henry’s got here.”

For his part, Culberson downplays his orange growing expertise, explaining it as more trial-and-error to find trees that would tolerate occasional freezing weather. His oranges weathered the brutal cold winter of 2010 — lows hit 14 degrees — just fine, Culberson said. Even when they freeze, Culberson’s oranges survive as long as they stay on the trees.

He picks them until April, and the later ones are the sweetest. Once picked however, the oranges last only about a week before they dry out. “When I planted this garden,” Culberson said, “I wanted to always have something to eat: figs, grapes, oranges. I had been on a boat in the inlet waterway near Wilmington when I saw some kind of citrus growing on the bank. It was an orange tree, but I never knew what kind of orange it was or anything about it. For years, I said if oranges can grow in Wilmington, they can grow here.”

He bought 15 different varieties from catalogues, and all died but one, a satsuma.

“I didn’t know they were cold hardy,” Culberson said.

That only whet Culberson’s appetite. He heard about McKenzie, a truck farmer who was growing citrus near Lake City.

“I went over there three times looking for him,” Culberson said. “Finally, I did find him. He’s a great guy, real personable.”

With McKenzie’s help, Culberson found more orange trees that would grow here, including a big tree named Rose of Texas.

His grove contains mostly mandarins, he says, with some navels, lemons and grapefruit.

“I’m an orange novice compared to these people,” Culberson says motioning toward his guests from the expo Saturday. “But I’ve got oranges growing, and I’m eating oranges.”

Culberson admits to overeating last year, carrying a bucket of oranges to work with him nearly every day and gaining a few pounds around the middle. He was reminded that he was eating an awful lot of sugar.

“I hadn’t thought about that,” he said. “I just thought it was healthy.”

By the time May rolled around, the oranges were gone and Culberson was back to his old surfing weight.

“It was fun,” he said, “having that many oranges. As a kid, it was a dream to have that many oranges.”

There are so many this year that Culberson has had to prop his tree limbs up to keep them from breaking under the weight of the fruit. He said some will be turned into juice, but he looks at oranges the same way he looks at crabs: It’s a whole lot easier to just eat them.

Culberson grew up in the counterculture of the 1960s and admired people who learned to live off the land. He moved to a deserted corner of Hagley’s woods in 1979 and started building a house.

He was so far out, the county refused him a certificate of occupancy because he didn’t have a road.

“I just had a path around the stumps leading to the house,” Culberson said. “So I got a bulldozer and made a road. I didn’t see the logic at the time, but it’s one of those things you have to accept for the greater good.”

He is constantly adapting and learning new things.

Culberson shows his visitors some long thorns on a lemon tree that he uses as toothpicks. One of them asks if he eats the greens from atop his sweet potatoes. He’ll try it, Culberson promises.

“This is just a wonderful way to live,” said Joyce June, a neighbor who joined the out-of-town visitors. “I wanted to see what he did. I have similar soil, and I want to copy a little bit of paradise.”

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