The origin of lemons is unknown but it’s pretty much agreed they were first grown in Assam (a region in northeast India), northern Burma or China. Somewhere along the line it became 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 bitter taste.
The fruit has come a long way since then, making it one of the world’s favorite citrus. Arab traders brought lemons to the Middle East and Africa sometime later as it made its way to southern Italy around 200 B.C. and was cultivated in Egypt. Citron paved the way for all citrus as 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 actually rare in ancient Rome, prized by the elite, and represented high social status. (So if someone called you a lemon back then, it was probably a compliment.)
At first, 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 had become a common crop in the Mediterranean region. The lemon was introduced to Western Europe somewhere between the years 1000 and 1200 BC. and traveled with the Crusades throughout their journeys, making 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 original Italian word limone dates back to the Arabic and Persian word limun. (More than you wanted to know.)
Thanks to Christopher Columbus, who brought them to Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic) in 1493, these new trees which produced strange yellow tart fruit, spread throughout the New World but were still used mainly as an ornamental and medicinal plant due to their very sour taste. (Apparently no one had figured out how to make lemon meringue pie yet).
While foodie president Thomas Jefferson boasted over one thousand fruit trees in his orchards, there is no record that he ever experimented with citrus, even though he must have encountered them in his travels to France, but the Virginia climate simply did not lend itself to citrus. However, lemons were being grown in California by the mid-1700s, and in tropical Florida by the 1800s, when they became a hit in cooking and flavoring.
Although lemon flavored puddings and custards have been enjoyed for centuries, our favorite lemon meringue pie as we know it today is a 19th-century product. The earliest recorded recipe was attributed to a Swiss baker named Alexander Frehse. There is also speculation that a British botanist may have concocted it around 1875, but whoever dreamed it up sure did us all a favor. One of America’s favorite pies, it still wows us to this day, with its tart custard base and light fluffy meringue topping.
Over 200 or so varieties of the lemon have evolved over the past three centuries. The Meyer lemon is named after Frank N. Meyer, who first introduced it to the USA in 1908, after he found it growing in Peking, China and brought back to the U.S. A favorite of pastry chefs for tarts and sorbets, it’s actually a cross between a lemon and an orange, with much of the U.S. crop grown in California’s Central Valley, and some in Florida and Texas. Unlike regular lemons, Meyer lemons are not picked 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 implement in order to save countless sailors. (Hence the nickname “limey” for a Brit, which sounded better than “lemony”). This opened the door to the value of Vitamin C and its importance in nutrition.
It’s hard to imagine life without the lemon. However you enjoy them, their bright yellow color, tangy taste and fragrant odor enhance our lives in many different ways, and if you are fortunate enough to live in an area where they grow, you can indulge for practically pennies. So, as the old saying goes, “When life hands you a lemon… “