Wild About Meyer Lemon
This has been a tough year for my fruit plants with the early June heat. I have two pomegranate trees, an apple tree, a fig tree, a peach tree, two oranges and a mandarin orange, and two Meyer Lemon trees. The trees are all healthy with a lot of green leaves, but the fruit did not survive well. The two most proficient trees are the peach and one of the Meyer Lemon trees. I give a lot of those fruits away and everyone that gets some is very appreciative to the taste and versatility of the lemons.
The Meyer Lemon, named for Frank Meyer, was discovered in China in 1909 by Meyer. Originally it was used as a house plant, noted for its decorative leaves. The fruit it bore was an afterthought. In parts of the world where it is too cold to grow outdoors it is still grown inside containers indoors. It is believed that its origin is from a natural hybrid rather than a man-made cross of two species. Common myth is that it is a hybrid of a lemon and a mandarin orange, but research has been done showing it to be a cross between a lemon and a regular orange.
Some of the characteristics of the Meyer Lemon are that it is sweeter than a typical lemon, a species called Citrus Limon Osbeck. Another characteristic is that the skins are very thin and can be eaten easily when cooked, as they do not contain the tart elements of a typical lemon. The thin skin is the reason that it took a long time for the fruit to become widespread in America. When they were first imported they became most popular in the warm parts of the country, states like Florida, Texas and California. They were not a commercial success because they did not travel well due to their thin skins. This all changed in the late 1990s when Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame started using them in her California cuisine cooking style. Soon after that Martha Stewart started promoting them as well.
The fruit has a short season of availability, only from December to March. Meyer Lemons grow on trees that can reach 10 feet tall, but are usually pruned to make them smaller to around 6 to 8 feet. The fruit is more round than a typical lemon, Eureka or Lisbon varieties found year round in most supermarkets, and each fruit can produce up to 10 seeds. The skin is very fragrant and has a tinge of orange color to it.
In the mid-1940s a citrus virus spread around the world killing millions of citrus trees and rendering many more unable to produce fruit. At this point most Meyer Lemon trees were destroyed to save the other more commercially viable citrus trees. It wasn’t until the 1950s that a virus-free variety was found, but it was not commonly available until 1975 when the University of California released it as the “Improved Meyer Lemon Tree.”
Grafted trees produce fruit in about two years while trees grown from seeds produce fruit in 4 to 7 years. Trees should be fertilized three times a year, in February, May and September and the amount per year is one pound per age of the tree, split in thirds. A one-year-old tree would get 1 pound the first year, 2 pounds the second year and an additional pound each year until it reaches 8 years (8 pounds) old. You should spread the fertilizer from 2 inches away from the trunk to twice the width of the tree’s canopy. A good fertilizer for lemon trees is one that is at least two parts nitrogen, one part phosphorous and one part potassium.
Besides fertilizer, pruning is another way to increase productivity. Branches that grow straight up generally do not produce fruit so they should be pruned. When pruning the branch you should cut it at a 45 degree angle with the cut side facing up to promote growth. You should also prune branches that block air circulation and sun to the trunk. Additionally, you should remove some of the fruit when they are pea sized if they are growing in a cluster.
Trees need at least 6 hours of sunlight a day so they should be either outside or by a window. If they are in a house they should be rotated so all parts of the plant receive direct sunlight. The trees can survive in temperatures as low as 20 degrees but if they are in containers you can bring them in the house in wintertime.
When the season ends and I am left with extra fruit I squeeze it and then freeze it in ice cube trays to enjoy the juice year round.