San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Nothing Beats the Sour Goodness of Lemons

Just talking about lemons makes many a mouth pucker, and given a choice between an orange and a lemon, most would surely pick the orange.

But even so, lemons do serve their purpose in our diets, and may benefit us more than we realize.

Lemons (Citrus limonia) and relatives, such as the sour mandarin (C. trifoliata), are well liked by Costa Ricans, and can be found in many backyards across the country, particularly in the coastal and midrange elevations of the country. In fact, lemon trees produce very well in the coastal regions, where orange trees often do poorly.

It is believed that the first lemons were originally cultivated in the hot, semi-arid Deccan Plateau in Central India about 2,500 years ago.Most of us were taught that Marco Polo was responsible for bringing citrus trees from the Orient to Europe, though lemons arrived in Spain during the Islamic conquest.

Lemons, along with other citrus trees, reached the New World with the Spanish. Christopher Columbus in his second voyage to the New World in 1493 brought lemon seeds to the Americas. Lisbon and Genoa lemons are two good examples of European stock.

Today, nurseries around the country offer several types of lemons. The Meyers lemon, named for Frank N. Meyer, who first bred it in 1908, is perhaps the most popular, and is a hardy cross between a lemon and an orange. This yellow, juicy, mildly sour lemon can’t be beat for making lemonade, salad dressings and ceviche.

Though you can usually grow lemon trees from seeds, it may take many years before these trees produce their first harvest of fruit. For this reason, it is a good idea to pick up a grafted lemon tree at your local nursery. Grafted trees often produce in the third year after planting.

To make your trees grow vigorously and bear early fruit, be sure to add plenty of organic compost in the planting hole. Then you can add small amounts of limestone, ashes and rock phosphate around the tree several times a year to ensure your tree has maximum fertility, health and vitality.

Like most citruses, lemon trees do best in well-drained, fertile soil and full sunlight.

Though lemons are generally compact trees, you can prune the tips of each leading stem to create a low-growing, bush-like tree, which makes harvesting easy, even for kids.

Keep an eye peeled for aphids, which sometimes attack the new growth of citrus trees and may cause stunted growth. These insects can be controlled naturally with a solution of several tablespoons of mineral oil to one liter of water; shake well and spray the leaves with a hand sprayer. Repeat once a week until results are obtained.

Keep the area beneath the tree weed free and be careful not to accidentally cut the trunk of the tree with a machete. Citrus trees are very susceptible to soil pathogens, which infect the injured bark and can cause serious damage to the trees. Many Tico gardeners like to paint the trunks of their fruit trees with white cement or whitewash, which helps reduce the chance of infection.

We all know the story of how British sailors were named “limeys” when doctors onboard ships discovered that limes, which are high in vitamin C, prevented scurvy. They made the crews drink limewater every day to prevent this condition while sailing.

Lemons and limes are an excellent source of vitamin C, and one of the most important antioxidants in nature. One hundred milliliters of lemon juice contains approximately 50 milligrams of vitamin C and five grams of citric acid.

Lemons and limes also contain unique flavonoids called flavonol glycosides, including many kaempferol-related compounds that have antioxidant and anti-cancer properties. Researchers have discovered that lemon and lime juice has a strong protective effect against many pathogenic bacteria, particularly Vibrio cholera, which causes cholera. In Ayurvedic medicine, a cup of hot water with lemon juice is prescribed first thing in the morning to tonify and purify the liver.

One of the most valuable discoveries we have come across for the use of lemon rinds came from our Tico neighbors. They taught us you can cook the rinds (three or more lemon rinds per liter of water) for several minutes, strain, and use the solution as a cleaning agent. The disinfectant works wonderfully for household cleaning, and eliminates that black mold so common in the tropics. It also leaves a fresh, lemon scent, and we no longer need to use those toxic chemical cleaners.

Lemon tree, oh so pretty, and the flowers, oh so sweet, and the fruit of the lemon, you just can’t beat.


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