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The Lovely Meyer Lemon

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I was scrolling through Facebook the other day when I came across an article lauding the Meyer lemon. I almost flipped past, thinking, I already know about lemons. Having inherited the family farm with an established lemon tree, I just figured I knew everything there was to know about all lemons. However, since the tree was already ancient when my parents purchased it in the early 60s, it did not come with a tag denoting the variety. Hmmm, I wondered, when I came across the article, could my old lemon be a Meyer?

That shows just how much I really knew about lemons. Since the agricultural explorer Frank Meyers first brought the tree from China to the states in 1908, it is doubtful that my tree would have gotten here so soon after. And furthermore, since Martha Stewart made them popular in the ’70s, by featuring them in her recipes, I can again say, nope, not a Meyer. So really, all I know about my beloved old lemon is that it provides me, my family, friends and neighbors-whom-I-like with a veritable ton of lemons 12 months out of the year.

That would be the first clue that my lemon tree is cut from a different cloth, as the Meyers are only in season for a short time, generally from December to March. While there are certain times of year that these trees will bear more fruit, regular lemons know no season. You’ll find them available in markets all year long. I get nervous every year, though, thinking that I will run out of lemons, so I start hoarding away the juice in the freezer. I finally stopped because I never had to use it and essentially ran out of room. And let me tell you, I go through gallons upon gallons of lemonade in the hot Valley summer.

What’s so special about the Meyer? These winter gems are smaller and rounder than regular lemons, with thin, orangish peel and dark yellow fruit. They are much sweeter and can be eaten right out of hand, skin and all, as well as added to salads and dishes just as they are. Some say they even have a spicy or herby fragrance that gives them a somewhat bergamot flavor. When they are fully ripe, they can take on an almost rose-gold blush. All this loveliness is no wonder, due to the marriage of a citron and a mandarin/pomelo, a hybrid distinct from the common or bitter orange.

When you go to the grocery or market to look for them, you may notice they are not cheap, or possibly even non-existent. Besides the fact that they are mostly confined to a short season, the super-thin skins make handling and shipping difficult. The tree actually started out as an Asian ornamental, but by the mid-1940s it had become widely established in California, Florida and Texas. 

It was eventually discovered that the crop was prone to the Citrus tristeza virus, which decimated millions of trees worldwide. Sadly, most of the Meyer trees in the U.S. had to be sacrificed to protect the other lemon varieties. But as luck, or better yet, research, would have it, the University of California at Riverside handed us a virus-free hybrid now known as the Improved Meyer, and production was back in business. All Meyer trees grown commercially today in the U.S. are of the improved variety.

These luscious lemons may be substituted for regular lemons whenever you want that characteristic lemon flavor without the pucker. Let me count just a handful of the ways I use my regular lemons. I’ll just bet the flavors may be enhanced or the recipe may need less sweetener when Meyers are used instead. Lemon curd bars and my lemon Bundt cake are both big hits, and you definitely want to be around when I have fresh-out-of-the-oven lemon poppyseed tea bread. And naturally, tea is better with a little squeeze, and chicken soup just soars to the next umami level.

Ready to get excited about this little upstart lemon? I certainly am, and now that I know the difference and all the possibilities, I plan to add a tree to my growing collection of citrus. Our local nurseries and home improvement centers carry loads of Meyer lemon trees, as I well know since I embarked upon on my crazy avocado search last summer (see the December issue). I completely ignored them, brushing them aside as I hunted out new avocado varieties that I didn’t have yet. I will surely be ready to plant after the threat of frost is past; as most of us know, citrus trees are not completely cold hardy.

After all this research, I just don’t feel right calling my regal old lemon tree “regular.” Did I discover what variety it actually is? I do believe, based on description and photos online, that it must be a Eureka. Now I just bet my dear sweet old mom can jump in and tell me for sure. And, I probably could have asked her before I went down this lemony rabbit hole, but then I would not have learned a thing about the lovely Meyer, nor would I be adding one to my citrus grove at the farm.

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