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Messing about with citrus

Our citrus trees are producing a bumper crop: or at least, some of them are.

You will probably know by now the story of our sweet orange tree that isn’t quite an orange, but predominantly a lemon. I’ve been writing about it for a while.

The first year it bore fruit, we had an orange. It took forever to swell and ripen, and I’d like to say it was worth the wait, but I think that might be an exaggeration. After that, we had one orange on the same part of the tree, and four lemons round the other side.

So we twigged that we had a tree composed of an orange scion grafted on to a rootstock of what is known in Egypt as an “Italian” lemon.

Last winter, I pruned the lemon stock (i.e. most of the tree) quite hard, opening out the centre to let in the light and air.

That caused the tree to take off as if there were no tomorrow, producing a wonderful head of new leaves, and a plentiful crop of lemons. But there are no oranges.

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Now the tree has taken an interesting new turn.  The thought occurs to me that we may have our own version of the Italian bizzarria, a citrus tree that mutates and evolves into something very different from where it started.

The lemons are still mostly green; those receiving plenty of sunlight are beginning to turn yellow. However, the odd one, found on one section of the tree, is turning – orange!  Seen below left, it is clearly more orange than yellow when compared to the lemon from another part of the tree, pictured right. Whatever its appearance, the juice confirms that it is definitely a lemon.

I have no idea why this has happened. Helena Attlee, in her study of citrus fruit in Italy*, provides an interesting insight:

“Sudden changes in temperature, periods of drought, unusually high rainfall or even wind could trigger mutation. This often affects only one or two branches of a tree, which flower at a slightly different time, produce fruit that matures at a different rate, or is even an entirely different shape and colour from the fruit on the rest of the tree.”

In fact, the winter 2015-16 was fairly tough, with a long spell of cold weather, although less rain and sleet than in 2013-14. Could this have triggered the change?

Perhaps the tree threw caution to the winds and produced a lemon with a twist; or perhaps it has arisen from the mixing of two distinct stocks; or even from a natural process of genetic diversification. I guess evolution didn’t stop when Charles Darwin “discovered” it, and there’s no reason to suppose that it isn’t continuing now, at this moment, in my garden – which is quite an exciting thought!

Meanwhile, the kumquat tree tends to support the theory of ever-changing nature. Whereas I made my first-ever batch of marmalade from the fruit in January, I already have a new crop ready to harvest this month. This is very early. As previously, there are in effect two crops on the tree: The second will probably be ready in about a month’s time.

Flowers are also appearing, suggesting a third crop is on the way.

Again, a mystery: some of the fruit are damaged, with a patch of peel  eaten away. This is puzzling, as citrus fruits are equipped with limonoids, natural insect repellents found in the skins. So perhaps the predator is a bird with a taste for bitter fruit, rather than an insect – a bulbul, maybe.

I foresee a period of marmalade madness. We have so many lemons, I can’t see any alternative destination for them other than the preserving pan. That will be another first. Then more  kumquats will need the same treatment. So I’ll be messing about with the citrus fruit until the New Year. Absolutely nothing to complain about, but the main challenge is to get my head round the task of accurately identifying the setting point. If any of you can advise me, I’d be so grateful!


* The Land Where Lemons Grow - Helena Attlee, published by Penguin Books

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I had always thought that lemons were more tender and would be grafted onto oranges but that is only confusing things. If you try to preserve the lemon juice you could always make a pickle out of the remains of the lemons. Amelia

    September 25, 2016
  2. Do you ever preserve your lemons under salt water in the Moroccan way? They are wonderful in salads and in many Middle Eastern dishes. I use most of my lemons in this way.

    September 26, 2016
  3. Using sour orange root stock is more usual as the trees are particularly robust. But the story of citrus is one of constant change and variety, sometimes quite mysterious in its way, and I have learnt one has to be prepared for surprises!
    I have never tried preserving the lemons – but, given the number we have, this might be worth a try as they add a lovely tang to meals. However, I have only seen small lemons, or limes, preserved this way and our three lime trees have not yet produced a single fruit.

    September 28, 2016

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