The origin of lemons is unknown but it’s pretty much agreed they were initially grown in Assam (an area in northeast India), northern Burma or China. Somewhere along the line it turned into a hybrid between the bitter orange (sour orange) and citron, which is your basic granddaddy of the citrus family, with its thick bumpy rind and sour flavor.
The fruit has come a long way since then, which makes it among the world’s favorite citrus. Arab traders brought lemons into the Middle East and Africa sometime afterwards as it made its way to southern Italy around 200 B.C. and was cultivated in Egypt. Citron paved the way for all citrus since it arrived in the Mediterranean around the late first century BC. These days, the citron, which contains very little pulp or juice, is usually candied and baked into fruitcakes.
Slow to catch on, for more than a millennium citron and lemon were the only citrus fruits known in the Mediterranean basin. Lemons, though abundant and commonplace now, were really rare in ancient Rome, prized by the elite, and represented high social status.
Initially, lemons were not widely grown for food or seasoning but largely an ornamental plant, like tomatoes, until about the 10th century. The Arabs introduced the lemon into Spain in the 11th century, and by then they’d become a frequent crop in the Mediterranean area. The lemon was introduced to Western Europe somewhere between the years 1000 and 1200 BC. And traveled with the Crusades during their journeys, which makes its way to England in the early 16th century. The name”lemon” first appeared around 1350-1400, from the old French word limon, and was Anglicized in England. The Italian term limone dates back to the Arabic and Persian word limun.
Thanks to Lake Mary Wildlife Removal, who brought them to Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic) in 1493, these new trees that produced odd yellow sour fruit, spread throughout the New World but were still used mainly as an ornamental and medicinal plant because of their very sour flavor. (Apparently nobody had figured out how to make lemon meringue pie nonetheless ).
While foodie president Thomas Jefferson boasted over one thousand fruit trees in his orchards, there’s no record he ever experimented with citrus, even though he should have encountered them in his travels to France, but the Virginia climate simply did not lend itself to citrus. But, lemons were being grown in California from the mid-1700s, and in tropical Florida by the 1800s, when they became a hit in flavoring and cooking.
Though lemon flavored puddings and custards are appreciated for centuries, our favorite lemon meringue pie as we know it today is a 19th-century item. The earliest recorded recipe has been attributed to a Swiss baker called Alexander Frehse. There’s also speculation that a British botanist could have concocted it around 1875, but whoever dreamed it up sure did us a favor.
Over 200 or so varieties of the lemon have evolved over the last three centuries. The Meyer lemon is named after Frank N. Meyer, who introduced it to the USA in 1908, after he discovered it rising in Peking, China and brought back to the U.S.. Unlike regular lemons, Meyer lemons aren’t selected green and cured after harvesting but are picked when fully ripe. They bear fruit year-round, are generally less sour and their pulp is orange-colored.
Many of us learned in grammar school that lemons and limes prevented a disease called scurvy, which Scottish surgeon James Lind discovered in 1747, urging the British Royal Navy to execute in order to save countless sailors. (thus the nickname”limey” to get a Brit, which sounded better than”lemony”). This opened the door to the value of Vitamin C and its significance in nutrition.
It’s tough to imagine life without the lemon. But you like them, their bright yellow color, tangy flavor and aromatic odor improve our lives in many different ways, and if you are fortunate enough to live in a place where they grow, you can indulge for practically pennies.