The origins of the lemon (Citrus limon) are unknown, though its history dates back as far as 200 A.D. when the fruit is believed to have been brought from India to southern Italy.
Reports of lemon cultivation appear in both Iraq and Egypt around 700 A.D. as well as in Sicily and China around the same period. Lemons were valued for their medicinal qualities after Arabs introduced them throughout the Mediterranean.
Lemons arrived in the New World in the mid-1700s where they were initially grown in California. Cultivation spread to Florida by 1839, leading to commercial production in both states by 1870.
California leads domestic production, through Mexico is the top producer globally, followed by Argentina and the European Union.
An oval-shaped fruit with a nipple-like bulge at one end, lemons usually have a peel around a quarter-inch thick. Peels are shades of yellow and pocked with oil glands, though some have green, yellow, or white stripes running lengthwise along the fruit. Pulp is pale yellow and acidic with a distinctive sour taste. The fruit is divided into several segments with few or no seeds.
Lemons typically garner the highest price per box of all citrus fruits. Most are used as juice, a garnish, or for cooking, but per capital consumption of fresh lemons continues to climb annually. The highest demand for lemons is in the summer months with the popularity of lemonade and other juice-based drinks.
Types & Varieties
Lemons can be separated into two categories: ‘true’ lemons and ‘rough’ lemons. True lemons are the original fruit thought to originate in India. Rough lemons are similar but less acidic and larger, with a bumpier peel and more seeds.
Other fruits that are sometimes referred to as lemons are Meyer or Ponderosa lemons. Neither are true lemons, but Meyer lemons are often used as a substitute, although they are much less acidic and bear some resemblance to yellowish oranges.
The unusual looking Buddha’s hand lemons are gaining popularity with chefs as a zest.
Popular lemon varieties include Armstrong, Avon, Bearss, Berna, Eureka, Femminello Ovale, Genoa, Harvey, Interdonato, Lisbon, Monachello, Nepali Oblong, Nepali Round, Rosenberger, Santa Teresa, and Villafranca.
Lemon trees grow from 10 to 20 feet in height with sharp thorny branches. Flowers are single or in bunches of two or more, though few pollinated buds will produce fruit. Trees usually achieve full fruit production by their eighth year.
Lemon trees are less sensitive to cold than lime trees, but since they both grow continuously, they are more susceptible to cold damage and less capable of recovery than orange trees.
The best fruit is produced in coastal areas with cool summers, but cold snaps with temperatures below 29°F will kill flowers and new fruit, and just one degree lower can severely damage mature fruit. The 24 to 22°F temperature range will defoliate trees, lower will damage wood.
Many different types of soil are acceptable, which can even grow on sand or silty clay loam, but pH levels should be between 5.5 and 6.5. Rough lemons can be grown from seed, though Meyer lemons are generally grown via rooting cuttings for transplant. Trees should be well spaced and protected from the wind, which will scar both fruit and tree.
Lemons are hand picked at different stages for marketing. California and Arizona producers pick lemons any time after they’ve attained 25% juice content. Some, such as Italian lemons, are picked early and cured. Others are harvested at maturity.