Nearby, you will find the dwarf palmetto, Sabal minor, a common native palm south of Virginia but an oddity in these parts.
Next comes a eucalyptus species called the Omeo gum tree, well on its silvery way to establishment if not maturity.
A little farther down, a windmill palm named Trachycarpus fortunei grows from a foundation bed where others might raise nandina or azaleas. The palm, the books say, is safe up to the Carolinas, but here, under the flight path of Dulles International Airport, it is almost eight feet across.
Walk down by the gate and you find another eucalyptus, the snow gum.
“It’s fun coming out here when it snows,” Saia said, for a spectacle that “doesn’t make any sense.”
Let’s cut to the chase, because amid all his palms, eucalyptus, bananas and other examples of his “tropicalesque plants,” Saia is growing a mystery citrus tree outdoors that now reaches to his second floor. It is bearing 20 fruits (up from three last year) that will turn orange in November. If last year’s experience is repeated, the fruit will reach the size of a golf ball or bigger, shift to its ripe color and exhibit a sweet flavor in flesh and rind.
Surprisingly, quite a few citrus plants will grow in a Washington garden — among them the hardy orange, a hybrid called the hardy grapefruit or citrumelo, and a species named Citrus ichangensis — but Saia’s orange tree has a sweetness lacking in the others.
The citrus lover who grows plants in large pots and has a bright, cool place to keep them in winter has a rich choice to hand. Common summer patio-winter conservatory fare includes Meyer lemons, calamondin oranges, ponderosa lemons, kumquats, limes and much more. But for Saia and fellow members of the Virginia Palm Society, this enigmatic plant holds the promise of bringing an outdoor citrus experience to our region enjoyed by gardeners in states such as Florida and California.
Saia and tropical plant buddy Joseph “Boca Joe” Seamone acquired the plant from Dave Klemm, another tropical plant devotee who picked it up at the annual Southeastern Citrus Expo in 2006. Saia planted it as an eight-inch transplant the following spring.
Klemm said he bought it from a South Carolina nurseryman who received it, in turn, from a Florida citrus grower who was unloading plants raised as rootstock. Fruit trees are commonly grafted onto a rootstock to improve performance.
The nurseryman thought it might be a seedling from a rootstock developed by the Agriculture Department — a cross between the hardy orange and, possibly, a hardy mandarin named Changsha. Because its seedlings differed so much from the parent plant, its value to rootstock growers was diminished. “It was hard for them to reproduce it on a large scale,” said Klemm, who lives in Annandale. “It’s Zone 7 hardy and [Saia] claims it’s edible; hopefully I’ll get a chance this fall to sample it.”