Text by Greg Coppa
Over the years I have written about many interesting vegetables, fruits and flowers and I have enjoyed publicizing new varieties, some the results of discoveries of natural mutations and others the fruit of breeders’ purposeful efforts (pun intended—I just can’t help it). Many plants I featured decades ago simply needed the right marketing touch to go from odd ball to the almost universally accepted. The alligator pear was a dud until it became the avocado; the Chinese gooseberry would not move off the shelves until it was reinvented as the kiwifruit.
I have remained pleased with some of my recommendations, like the seedless ‘Saturn’ and ‘Niagara’ grapes for Northern growers and the various columnar apple trees for those who wish to grow apples in pots or where they have very limited space. But I curse the day I got it in my head to try to grow the hardy kiwi cultivars in New England. For reasons, still unknown, I have been unsuccessful at producing a single edible kiwifruit from self-fertile or male and female varieties imported from Russia, China and Korea. God knows how I tried and how I wasted years of valuable growing space and time!
My current project is persimmons. I have four varieties that I am tracking in the yard. The native American ‘Meader’ tree seems to be a bust with its trial-size fruit. (Every vegetable and fruit catalog should have a silver dollar or a dollar bill for scale in any picture of featured fruit.) I’ll give it another two or three years before deciding whether or not to chop the tree down and maybe give the wood to a woodworker friend for making custom golf clubs, knife handles or guitar components. But I digress.
One plant I always wanted to play around with was the so-called Meyer lemon. I knew it is a sweet variety with a good reputation for its easy growing habit, but I’d heard that about the hardy kiwis, too. When on the Italian island of Ischia, near Capri, I was exposed to some lemons that were so sweet that their juice was actually added to orange juice, which gave it a zing without diminishing its sweetness. I suspect that these were either Meyer lemons or similar hybrids.
In any case, the Meyer lemon tree that my kids gave me for Christmas was a pleasure to behold right from the start. It had lustrous foliage, one green lemon on it—about the size of a lime—and a bunch of deliciously scented flowers. I figured if it did nothing but scent the air for a month each year it would still be a winner.
However it did much more than that. The bushy little tree (only 15 inches tall) kept by a sunny window and put outside in May produced 9 full-size commercial-grade lemons! No wonder that in 1908, Mr. Frank Meyer, a USDA plant explorer, imported a few trees from near Peking, where they were commonly grown in home gardens or as ornamental shrubs.
It turns out that the tree is not a true lemon tree, but rather a hybrid, probably involving a lemon and either a mandarin or an orange. The Meyer lemon skin, noticeably lacking in oils, does not smell like regular lemon skin does. And the fruit is rounder than that of the most common commercial lemon varieties you see in stores. As you might expect, the juice of the Meyer lemon is not as acidic as the juice from other cultivars, meaning that you should experiment with their use as substitutes them for other varieties in your favorite recipes.
The plants are cold hardy compared to other lemons, and a heavily bearing diminutive Meyer will definitely stimulate conversation and maybe even envy among your gardening friends.
Lemon-loving Californians used to shy away from growing early Meyer lemon trees because they were carriers of citrus tristeza virus (CTV), which as far as I know did not affect the Meyer tree or fruit but threatened other varieties grown in the state. A CTV infection, sometimes referred to as quick decline, causes citrus leaves to yellow and wilt. The virus is blamed for the almost complete destruction of citrus cultivation in the 1920s in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. (Tristeza means sadness in Portuguese and Spanish.) Credit is given to a Don Dillon, Sr., for discovering and propagating a CTV-free Meyer cultivar that has displaced the older variety in California and most other places.
Commercial Meyer lemon crops tend to mature in November, December and January. In the Golden State you’ll see them in the Central and Sacramento valleys, but they’ll do well in places like Florida and Texas and they’ll even crop up (another pun, sorry) on patios in Rhode Island and South Dakota. From what I’ve seen the patio-grown Meyer fruits are every bit as good as those grown commercially.
The Meyer lemon tree has rich foliage, smells good, matures quickly, bears an edible product and can be grown in a pot. What more can a gardener want?
Greg Coppa writes from his home in Rhode Island.