History & Cultivation:
The origin of the lemon is unknown, though lemons are thought to have first grown in Assam, a region in northeast India, northern Burma and China. A study of the genetic origin of the lemon reported it to be a hybrid between bitter orange (sour orange) and citron (citrus medica).[i] The origin of the word “lemon” may be Middle Eastern. One of its earliest occurrences appears in a Middle English customs document of 1420–1421. The word comes from the Old French limon, also the Italian limone.
During the time of ancient Rome lemons, or citrons, were found near southern Italy about the first century AD, however they were not widely cultivated. They were later introduced to Persia, then Iraq and Egypt around 700 AD. The lemon was first recorded in literature in a 10th century Arabic article on farming and was also used as an ornamental plant in early Islamic gardens. They were distributed widely throughout the Arab world and Mediterranean region between 1000 and 1150.
The first substantial cultivation of lemons in Europe began in Genoa in the middle of the 15th century and later was introduced to the Americas in 1493 when Christopher Columbus brought lemon seeds to Hispaniola on his voyages. Spanish conquest throughout the New World helped spread lemon seeds. It was used mainly as an ornamental plant and for medicine. In the 19th century lemons were increasingly planted in Florida and California.
As of 2012, the world’s top three lemon-producing nations by tonnage were China, India and Mexico, which together accounted for nearly half (43.5%) of all global production.
In 1757, James Lind’s experiments on seamen suffering from scurvy involved adding lemon juice to their diets, though vitamin C was not yet known.[ii] Subsequent voyages throughout the Caribbean saw many ships take on limes at various ports of call to prevent scurvy, which then let to a British sailor being referred to as a “Limey”.
Lemon juice, rind, and zest are used in a wide variety of foods and drinks. Lemon juice is used to make lemonade, soft drinks and cocktails. It is used in marinades for meat and fish where the acid partially hydrolyzes (chemically changes) tough collagen fibers, tenderizing the meat.
Lemon juice is also used as a short-term preservative on certain foods that tend to oxidize and turn brown after being sliced, such as apples, bananas and avocados, where its acid denatures the enzymes.
Lemon juice and rind are used to make marmalade and lemon liqueur. Lemon slices and lemon rind are used as a garnish for food, especially seafood dishes and as a garnish for drinks. Lemon zest, the grated outer rind of the fruit, is used to add flavor to baked goods, puddings, rice and other dishes.
Lemons are a rich source of vitamin C, providing 64% of the daily value in a 100g serving. One way of making use of the entire fruit is to wash the fruit well in hot water, freeze it, then grate the entire frozen lemon and store in the freezer. Sprinkle it on salads, ice cream, soup, cereals, noodles, spaghetti sauce, rice, sushi, fish dishes … the list is endless. All foods will unexpectedly have a wonderful new taste. Most likely, you only think of lemon juice and vitamin C, but lemons contain numerous phytochemicals (plant nutrients) and the leaves of the lemon tree are used to make tea.
Lemon oil may be used in aromatherapy. Lemon oil aroma does not influence the human immune system, but may enhance mood. The low PH of juice makes it antibacterial and in India the lemon is used in Indian traditional medicines.
The juice of the lemon may be used for cleaning. A halved lemon dipped in salt or baking powder is used to brighten copper cookware. The acid dissolves the tarnish and the abrasives assist the cleaning.
As a sanitary kitchen deodorizer the juice can deodorize, remove grease, bleach stains and disinfect. When mixed with baking soda, it removes stains from plastic food storage containers.
The oil of the lemon’s peel is used as a wood cleaner and polish, where its solvent property is employed to dissolve old wax, fingerprints and grime. Lemon oil and orange oil are also used as a non-toxic insecticide treatment.
A halved lemon is used as a finger moistener for those counting large amounts of paper currency, such as tellers and cashiers.
And for Fun!
One educational science experiment involves attaching electrodes to a lemon and using it as a battery to produce electricity. Although very low power, several lemon batteries can power a small digital watch.[iii] These experiments also work with other fruits and vegetables.
Lemon juice is sometimes used as an acid in educational science experiments. The juice from lemons may be used as a simple invisible ink, developed by heat.
So, next time you are shopping, pick up a couple of extra lemons and try an educational science experiment for yourself!!
[i] Gulsen, O.; M. L. Roose (2001). “Lemons: Diversity and Relationships with Selected Citrus Genotypes as Measured with Nuclear Genome Markers”. Journal of the American Society of Horticultural Science 126: 309–317.
[ii] James Lind (1757). A treatise on the scurvy. Second edition. London: A. Millar.
[iii] “Lemon Power” – California Energy Commission.