Monday, February 24, 2014

Meatless Monday: Citrus in the Backyard

There is a place where money grows on trees — in much of Central and Southern California — where property lines are demarcated by citrus trees instead of privet hedges.

Check out this recent photo from our local Whole Foods in Connecticut to see the value of these backyard crops in East Coast dollars.

No Meyer Lemons in this photo
because there were none to be found.
Note the price for a run-of-the-mill lemon.
According to the California Master Gardener Handbook, the most popular citrus fruit for the home garden is the Improved Meyer Lemon. This very juicy fruit is round, thin-skinned, and almost orange when ripe. Originally imported from China, it is a hybrid between a lemon and a sweet orange or mandarin and is less acidic and more tolerant of cold than other lemons. A small tree, the Meyer Lemon can be grown in containers. The Handbook also states that the Improved Meyer Lemon does not need pruning and makes an excellent hedge! It bears fruit year-long in the coastal areas, and from November-March inland. Oh, I hope you Californians with these trees in your yard appreciate your good fortune!

A backyard Meyer Lemon tree
in Silicon Valley in late February.
Citrus is thought to be native to China, but has been part of California’s heritage since the Spanish missionary Father Junipero Serro planted a citrus tree at Mission San Diego in 1769. By the late 1800s, oranges and lemons had become a commercial crop. 

How did this fruit get its name?
According to Julie O’Hara, reporting for NPR, Frank N. Meyer was sent to Asia in the early 1900s by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an agricultural explorer to collect new plant species. One of these plants he brought back was the hybrid lemon/orange, cultivated in China mainly as an ornamental. This tree was named the Meyer Lemon in his honor. The Meyer Lemon was introduced to citrus-friendly climes including California. The fruits proved too fragile to distribute commercially, but became a locally-enjoyed favorite, particularly with backyard gardeners. 

Now to the “Improved” portion of the plant name… Most of the Meyer Lemon trees in California fell victim to a virus in the 1960s. One stock was found to be free of the disease and became the basis for the “Improved Meyer Lemon” tree

In recent years, the Meyer Lemon was discovered by Martha Stewart. This has sent the fruit’s popularity soaring. Its aforementioned fragility causes it to be in short supply in distant markets. O’Hara claims that the skin is so thin that the fruit can be eaten whole, without peeling! Shoppers willing to pay a premium price may be lucky enough to score some in specialty stores between November and April. There are a few farms listed on the LocalHarvest site who will ship direct to the customer. The one I found lists 2 pounds for just shy of $24.00, or 10 pounds for pennies under $50.00. Ouch!

There are some recipes on the NPR site to inspire you should you be lucky enough to get your hands on some Improved Meyer Lemons. [Note: it takes 4-5 to make lemon bars.]

Have a great week. Stay warm. Eat well.

On Mondays I often blog on food, food issues, or gardening in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

1 comment:

  1. I just checked out the recipes on the NPR site and look forward to trying them all, especially the Roasted Root Veggies with Meyer Lemon. Yum! Maybe we can try that together!