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Growing Lemons: Citrus limon

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Members of the Citrus family, lemons, according to genetic analysis, are complex hybrids arising from mandarin, pomelo, and citron ancestors, refined by thousands of years of cultivation. Citrus limon, the true lemon, is widely grown commercially.


Form: Shrub or small tree.
Lifespan: 50-100 years.
Leaf retention: Evergreen.
Growth rate: Moderate.
Mature Size: 10-20' high and 7-15' wide.
Flowers: White on top, five petals, fragrant.
Bloom: In mild winter regions, possibly all year.
Self-fruitful: All lemon cultivars self-pollinate.
Years before fruiting: 3. Discard any small fruits started in the first three years so the plant can put more energy into growth.
Fruit: Generally oval shaped, sometimes with pointed ends. When ripe, the skin is yellow and aromatic. The yellow flesh, very sour in the 'Lisbon' but slightly sweet in the 'Improved Meyer', may contain seeds or be seedless. The entire fruit is edible except for the seeds.
Months for fruit to ripen: 6-9. Lemons are ripe when the skin is entirely yellow. Their flavor does not ripen further after harvest, but they can be made to soften and finish becoming all yellow when picked early if the skin has some yellow. Place them in a window where they can receive direct sunlight. Early picked fruit ripened inside will not taste as good as one fully ripened on the tree, however. Do not allow lemons to remain on the tree more than two weeks when ripe, or they will become dry and tasteless.
Storage after harvest: Lemons last about a week at room temperature and four weeks sealed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
Leaves: Glossy dark green, broadly lance-shaped.
Stems: Twigs may have sharp thorns.
Roots: Usually grafted onto a hardier rootstock.
Cultivars of Note:
'Lisbon' blooms in the spring, bears most of the year, has oblong fruit with a prominent nipple, is thorny, vigorous and productive, and being widely grown, is the standard commercial lemon.
'Eureka' blooms fall and spring, produces year-round, and has few seeds. Compared to 'Lisbon', it is slightly less cold-hardy and less thorny, less resistant to insect infestation and neglect, and shorter lived.
'Pink Variegated Eureka' has green and yellow striped fruit ripening to all yellow, pink flesh, blooms and fruits nearly year-round, has few seeds and variegated leaves, and is less vigorous than the typical 'Eureka'.
'Improved Meyer', a cross between two citrus cultivars, does not have the parentage of true lemon. It withstands a wider range of heat and cold, has a different flavor – sweeter and less acidic, bears year-round, has many seeds, but its thin rind has little lemon oil flavor, making the grated rind useless in recipes.
'Sweet Lemon' is a generic name for hybrids that are low acid. One such hybrid, with the non-official scientific name Citrus ujukitsu, is called Ujukitsu Sweet Lemon. This is a small citrus shrub with weeping branches. Growing very slowly, it is cold-hardy in USDA zones 9-10. The large, pear-shaped, mild tasting fruits develop at the end of its branches.
'Ponderosa Lemon' a hybrid of Pomelo and Citron, with larger flowers blooming throughout the year, is often grown as an ornamental. The very large, yellow, bumpy fruit have a lemon's flavor and acidity and can be used in place of standard lemons. It is less cold hardy than a Lisbon lemon.
Wildlife: Attracts bees, insects, birds, and is a food plant for the Giant Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar – see Pests, below. Mammals may strip the bark off of young trees, consume fallen fruit, or climb the tree to eat the fruit.
Toxic / Danger: Not to humans. Toxic to pets.
Origin: Asia.

Cultivation and Uses

USDA hardiness zones: 9b-11. Flowers and young fruit are damaged at 29°F, nearly mature fruit is damaged below 28°F, the plant defoliates at 22-24°F, and there is wood damage at 20°F. It needs protection from wind.
Chill hours: None.
Heat tolerant: Yes.
Sun: Full sun.
Drought tolerant: Depends on rootstock. Drought will damage the crop.
Water after becoming established: Deeply, monthly in winter to weekly in summer, from the trunk to just beyond the canopy. Lemon trees require 20% more water than orange trees of the same size. Young trees need watering more often than older trees even though older trees consume more water. A sign of insufficient water is leaves turning dull and curling inward from the edges.
Soil: Well drained, native soil, pH 6.1-7.8 (slightly acidic to slightly alkaline), low in salt.
Fertilize: Do not fertilize the first two years. Apply an organic fertilizer every month from mid-February to early October. Apply a citrus micronutrient solution three times a year in February, May and August. Do not fertilize after October to keep the plant from producing new growth that will be harmed by early frost.
Mulch: Use no more than 3" of aged compost under the canopy and keep it one foot away from the trunk. Place a rodent gnaw guard around the trunk at the bottom.
Planting: Can be grown in containers.
Prune: Not necessary. If you prune up from the bottom to expose the trunk, you must paint the trunk with a white tree trunk paint to avoid sunscald.
Litter: Low.
Propagation: Cuttings grafted onto rootstock. The seed is not likely to grow true or may be sterile.
Pests: Giant Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillar. This larvae resembles bird poop and has white and black and/or brown splotches. On a large plant it will cause no harm. On a small plant, relocate it to a large citrus. See Citrus: Diseases and Disorders
Uses: Ornamental, edible fruit.

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Lemon: Citrus x limon meyer - flowers

Lemon: Citrus x limon meyer - fruit
Citrus x limon: 'Improved Meyer' flowers and fruit.

Lemon: Citrus limon - fruit
Citrus limon: 'Lisbon'.

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Latest update: January, 2020