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‘Lemon tree very pretty, but…’

By Staff | Apr 3, 2011

The Delavan Community Theater group almost had a serious issue crop up last week.

You see, they are heavy into rehearsals for their spring play right now. And, they nearly lost their director, Ellen Katzke.

It would be tough to keep on practicing the play without a director.

Katzke wasn’t ill and she wasn’t planning a vacation.

Well, unless going to jail is considered a vacation.

The rural Delavan resident was informed last week that she was in violation of federal law for growing an illegal plant in her basement.

I know what you are thinking, and no, Ellen was not raising marijuana under grow lights in her basement.

No, it was much worse than that. She was growing a lemon tree.

And to make matters worse, she was accused of smuggling the tree into her rural Delavan basement.

She was facing some serious charges, she learned.

Before you think this is another attempt at slipping an April Fools Day story past you, let me assure you that this is all true.

True, but very, very strange.

Here is the story.

Ellen’s daughter went online last December and ordered a lemon tree from a company in Georgia to be delivered to her mother as a Christmas present.

Sure enough, a UPS truck pulled up to Ellen’s rural Delavan home and delivered the tree.

Katzke says the tree was a bit scrawny, but it had several lemons on it. She watered it, kept it growing and didn’t think much more about it.

Then, last week the story took a very bizarre turn.

Katzke received a telephone call from an agent of the USDA anti-smuggling unit.

Katzke says the agent asked her about the tree, but in reality he knew all about it.

He knew, for instance, that her daughter ordered the tree for her as a gift, and where she had ordered it from, and when it had been delivered.

Then he told her she was breaking the law by having the tree and the tree had to be destroyed.

It seems the company it was ordered from had smuggled the trees illegally into the U.S. It was now closed up, facing bankruptcy, with the owners nowhere to be found.

There are some serious citrus tree diseases hitting the country, thus the importation of trees into this country is strictly monitored.

A single tree like this one could ravage entire lemon tree orchards, the agent told her.

And, we all know there are many lemon tree orchards around Delavan.

Katzke asked the agent if she could just take the tree out in her back yard and throw it onto the burn pile. Would that make everything better?

No, said the agent, that just wouldn’t do. He would need to come and confiscate the tree himself.

So he did.

He came to her house, took the tree out of its pot by the roots, and put it in an official government yellow bag. And hauled it away.

He also informed Katzke of the specific laws she and her daughter had broken, gave her dozens of sheets of rules to look through, had her sign numerous documents, and warned her never to buy fruit trees again. For the good of the Minnesota citrus tree crop, I?suppose.

Of course, bold lawbreaking renegade that she is, Katzke had removed the three lemons from the tree before the agent arrived. They are safely tucked away in her refrigerator.

“I guess I could have made some lemonade and offered it to the agent,” she says with a laugh.

Katzke also still wants to try and grow some citrus trees in her Delavan home. She has checked out another nursery on the east coast, which she thinks might be legit.

The unnerving part of this story, Katzke points out, is that the federal agent knew everything about her and the fact that she was harboring an illegal plant in her basement.

When he informed her that he was coming to get the tree the next day, Katzke asked him if he needed directions to her home.

“No,” he replied. “We know where you live.”