The origin of lemons is unknown but it’s pretty much agreed they were grown in Assam (a region in northeast India), northern Burma or China. Somewhere along the line it became a hybrid between the sour orange (sour orange) and citron, which is your basic granddaddy of the citrus family, with its thick bumpy rind and sour 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 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 came in the Mediterranean around the late first century BC. Nowadays, the citron, which contains very little juice or pulp, 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 from the Mediterranean basin. Lemons, though commonplace and abundant now, were really rare in ancient Rome, prized by the elite, and represented high social standing. (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 frequent crop in the Mediterranean area. And traveled with the Crusades throughout their journeys, which makes its way to England in the early 16th century. The original Italian term limone dates back to the Arabic and Persian word limun.
Thanks to Christopher Columbus, who brought them to Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic) in 1493, these new trees which produced strange yellow tart fruit, spread across the New World but were used mainly as an ornamental and medicinal plant due to their very sour flavor. (Apparently nobody 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’s no record he ever experimented with citrus, although he must have struck 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 from the 1800s, when they became a hit in flavoring and cooking.
Though lemon flavored puddings and custards are enjoyed for centuries, our preferred lemon meringue pie as we know it today is a 19th-century product. The earliest recorded recipe has been 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 the day, with its tart custard base and light fluffy meringue topping.
Over 200 or so varieties of the lemon have evolved over the last three centuries. Unlike regular sugars, Meyer lemons are not 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 Squirrel Poop-colored.
A lot of us learned in grammar school that lemons and limes averted a disease called scurvy, which Scottish surgeon James Lind discovered in 1747, urging the British Royal Navy to implement in order to save hundreds of 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 like them, their bright yellow color, tangy flavor and aromatic 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 virtually pennies.