A Wisconsin man’s indoor citrus tree is 61 years old and part of the family

GREEN BAY, Wis. — He’s the family member Mark Was only lets into the house when it’s cold outside.

Not to name names – oops, he doesn’t – but he stands over 6½ feet tall, barely fits through the door, is undeniably bottom heavy, has been known to make a mess in the corner and has a reputation for being a bit of a thorn in his wife’s side.

Still, Was couldn’t love this grapefruit more.

He was in second grade when he and his mother planted a seed from the half grapefruit he was eating for breakfast that morning. Not only did he grow, but 61 years later, the tree he grew up in is still with him.

He spent the first 20 years with his parents, moving from plastic pots to whiskey barrels. He moved in with him when he got his own apartment, and for 30 years home sweet home has been the home of Was and his wife Linda Gendrich in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, where he’s officially part of the family.

It summers on the patio and has weathered high winds knocking it over, deer sampling its leaves, and squirrels using its pot to bury treasure. In the fall, it straddles Wisconsin winters in a southeast corner of the house with a window view and a grow light for “a little punch.”

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“I don’t know how my parents did”

Getting the nearly 100-pound shaft in and out of the house again is a two-year production.

It can grow up to a foot during the summer, so Was usually prunes it in the fall to reduce its size. He is then wrapped in blankets and wrapped in bungee cords and twine to reign in the branches to better fit him through the door. It took him, Gendrich, and a neighbor to argue, and even then, someone or a wall is still scratched or pricked by one of his pruning thorns.

“I don’t know how my parents did for the first 20 years,” Was said. “As soon as I moved to Wauwatosa, they came with it in the back of the car and it was like, ‘Here we don’t want it anymore.’

Gendrich is known to share that sentiment at times, but despite her pleas to “get the thing out of her way,” the tree is still going strong.

It is root bound, but about every three years they take it out of the pot, cut the roots, give it some fresh soil and watch it flourish once the summer temperatures arrive. Just like Was’s mother told him all those years ago: “Water and sunshine, and it will prosper.”

One of the challenges of moving the potted grapefruit out on the patio in the summer and back into the house in the winter is its prominent thorns.

‘I can’t get rid of it. I just can’t.

Things were a little tricky about 10 years ago when a mite infestation developed, but advice from friend and nationally renowned gardening expert Melinda Myers and the staff at Mitchell Park Domes in Milwaukee have mastered.

“Unfortunately, it never paid off, and I don’t know why,” said Was, who had long since given up hope. “At 61, he’s well past his prime – much like me.”

What it lacks in breakfast table offerings, it makes up for in conversation starters. At every Christmas party, birthday party and patio picnic, it never fails to get people talking. When visitors can’t believe it’s a grapefruit, Was tears off a leaf and rubs it between their fingers so they can smell the citrus aroma.

There was a time when he considered giving it to the Domes, where he could live out his golden years in a spacious, warm house all year round, surrounded by tropical friends and no more stressful seasonal moves.

“But I can’t do that. It’s part of my childhood,” he said. “I can’t get rid of it. I just can’t.

A little piece of his mom is growing with this tree. It brings back memories of her sitting at the table browsing through plant catalogs in January and February to pick out the peppers and tomatoes she started from seed.

She is love in this labor of love. It’s pretty sure that every fall and spring, when it’s time to move the tree, she looks down and laughs to herself.

Kendra Meinert is an entertainment and feature writer at the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Contact her at 920-431-8347 or kmeinert@greenbay.gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter @KendraMeinert.

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