The lemon came to southern Europe during the time of the ancient Romans (around the 2nd century) and about 500 years later to the Middle East.
There was a time, not so long ago, when just about every Aussie backyard had a lemon tree. Now that many city folk live in apartments and townhouses, thankfully there are varieties that are well suited to container growing as long as they receive enough sun.
The lemon is so ubiquitous in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines you’d think it must have originated in that part of the world. The truth is its origins are not known but it’s thought to have come from Southeast Asia, quite likely northern India.
The lemon arrived in southern Europe during the time of the ancient Romans (around the 2nd century) and about 500 years later in the Middle East. By the end of the first millennium it was widely grown throughout those regions, though not cultivated intensively until the 15th century. Columbus took seeds to America and the Caribbean.
Although lemons are always available in the shops (always check they’re Australian grown), what could be better than picking your own fresh off the tree as and when you need them for your seafood dishes, schnitzels, lemon meringue pies and lemon curd?
‘Eureka’ is the great all-rounder for all but the coldest climates. It bears most of the year, though its best crop is in winter. It’s virtually thornless and has few seeds and a good acidic lemon flavour. It was discovered as a seedling in California in 1858, turning up in a box of lemons imported from Italy. It’s a pretty big tree (to around 4m), so will need space.
‘Lisbon’, with a Portuguese heritage, is more suited to cold climates but is thorny, has more seeds and crops in winter to early spring. It has a good lemon flavour and a thin skin.
‘Meyer’ lemons are hardy, suited to cold climates, and have the advantage of being smaller trees. But as a hybrid of a lemon and orange they have a less acidic taste in the flesh and the skin isn’t so good for zesting. Meyer also fruits almost year round.
‘Fino’, originating from Spain, is a newer variety to our shores. A heavy winter cropper, making it a good commercial variety, it’s thorny but the fruit is juicy and has few seeds. It’s not as easily found in nurseries but you can get it from fruit specialists like Daleys.
Also available from specialist fruit nurseries is ‘Villa Franca’, thought to have originated in Sicily from the ‘Meyer’ group. The fruit is large and not too seedy but the tree does have some thorns. This variety is suited to tropical areas.
There are also dwarf forms of ‘Meyer’ and ‘Lisbon’, perfect for balconies and small courtyards. ‘Lots A’ Lemons’ is a named dwarf variety. It grows to 1.5m and produces full-sized fruit.
On the subject of grafting, it’s possible to purchase double- and multi-grafted citrus with lemon and another citrus (or two) such as lime or orange fruiting on the same plant. These are available from companies such as Fruit Salad Tree and Citrus2Grow.
Lemon trees like full sun and well-drained soil. They’re both hungry and thirsty, so prepare for planting by digging in lots of organic matter such as well-rotted manure or compost. If your soil is heavy clay, you may need to grow your lemon in a tub or build up the soil at least 30cm above ground level so it drains.
The trees also need mulching as they are shallow-rooted and will perform well given regular fertilising with an organic citrus formula from spring. Be consistent with watering, especially when establishing and forming fruit. Fruit fall can mean the tree has dried out too much or been subjected to strong cold winds.
Prune only to remove dead growth or to create a bushier or lower shape; thin fruit if the crop gets too heavy. The best time to do any pruning is spring.
Although relatively easy to grow, citrus do attract some pests. Leaf miner causes squiggly tracks on leaves and can be treated with an organic pest oil after removing badly affected leaves. Scale and the accompanying sooty mould can be controlled with a commercial soap spray.
Spined citrus bugs and bronze orange bugs (stink bugs) should be carefully removed using a paper towel, being very careful not to squeeze them. Some people use an old vacuum cleaner to suck them off trees. They can also be sprayed with neem oil or a homemade garlic spray.
Citrus are also prone to collar rot if planted too deep or mulched right to the trunk. Always leave space around the trunk and never transplant deeper than the soil level in the pot.
Bush lemon, Citrus jambhiri, is a naturalised lemon that grows wild in subtropical areas. It’s known elsewhere as “rough lemon”. Though not as valued for its fruit, its zested rind is very good in cooking.
Citron, Citrus medica, is also valued more for its thick sweet-tasting rind and pith. Its peel is often candied or added to marmalades. You won’t usually find this one in shops so it’s best to grow your own. Try the intriguingly shaped Buddha’s hand form.
Lemonade, Citrus ‘Lemonade’, looks mostly like a lemon but is sweet with no sourness and can be simply peeled and eaten like a mandarin or orange. Again, you won’t find it in shops, but it’s very rewarding to grow your own.
Common name: Lemon
Botanical name: Citrus x limon
Aspect and soil: Sunny, sheltered; well-drained soil
Best climate: Temperate to tropical
Habit: Small tree
Propagation: Grafting, cutting, seed
Juice & zest 4 lemons
200g caster sugar
100g unsalted butter, cut into cubes
3 eggs, plus 1 egg yolk
Put juice, zest, sugar and butter in heatproof bowl. Sit bowl over a pot of gently simmering water, making sure the water does not touch bottom of bowl. Stir mixture occasionally until butter has melted.
Lightly whisk eggs and egg yolk and stir into lemon mixture. Whisk until all ingredients are well combined, then allow to cook for about 12 mins, stirring, until mixture is creamy and thick enough to coat back of spoon.
Remove from heat and set aside to cool, stirring occasionally. Once cooled, spoon into sterilised jars and seal. Keep in fridge until ready to use.
½–1 cup Celtic sea salt (not table salt that is bleached, iodised and contains nasty chemicals)
Extra freshly squeezed lemon juice, if needed
Sterilised Mason jar
Put 2 tbsp Celtic salt in bottom of Mason jar.
Scrub lemons clean and cut off 6mm from their tips.
Cut lemons in half lengthwise, keeping each lemon attached at the base — do not cut all the way through. Make another cut the same way, as if cutting into quarters but not all the way through.
Gently pull open quarters and sprinkle well with salt, inside and out.
Put prepared lemons in jar and press them down so juices come out and rise to top. Pack jar tightly with lemons, making sure they are covered with juice, adding more juice if needed. The less space there is between lemons, the more attractive it will look and you won’t need to use so much salt.
The lemons will be ready after 1 month and will last for about 2 years.
Tip: Experiment with adding spices: cardamom, vanilla, whole cloves, coriander seeds, cinnamon stick, bay leaf, peppercorns, cayenne pepper, whole olives.