Take a look in your refrigerator or your fruit basket -- there’s probably a lemon in there. It can add brightness to just about every meal and balances the flavors of both sweet and savory dishes. It is one of the most essential ingredients for novice cooks and professional chefs alike, and the whole fruit, from the juicy pulp to the zesty peel, can be used to add acidity and aroma. We use a high-quality organic lemon oil in our Lemon Poppy Seed Dressing and our Summer Edition Blueberry Lemon Seed Bars for its fragrance and brightness. But there is so much more to learn about the humble lemon. It’s not just a yellow fruit that life gives you to make lemonade; its history goes back eight million years and it might have even led to the formation of the Sicilian Mafia.
SPIES, SCURVY, & THE SICILIAN MAFIA
Citrus trees first appeared roughly 8 million years ago in the southern Himalayan region. Over many centuries of expanding trade and migration, the original citrus trees evolved into the many subspecies of citrus fruits found today. By the 1400s, lemons and other citrus crops made their way to Europe, from which they were brought by explorers over to the New World throughout the period of colonization in the Americas.
FUN FACT: Lemon juice was used by spies as invisible ink in the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and both World Wars.
It wasn’t until the late 1800s that it was discovered that citrus fruits like oranges and lemons cured scurvy, a potentially fatal disease resulting from a vitamin C deficiency that severely affected malnourished sailors exploring new lands and defending powerful nations on the high seas. After this discovery, demand for lemons and other citrus exploded. Because of their popularity and the narrow geographical range where they can be grown, lemons became one of the most valuable crops in the world. Lemons were so valuable, in fact, that orchards throughout Italy had to be heavily guarded by security forces to prevent thieves from stealing lemons in the night. Some believe these lemon orchard security forces eventually formed the Sicilian Mafia because of the organized (and weaponized) network that was created throughout Southern Italy.
Lemon production eventually came to California in the mid-1700s and arrived in Florida a half-century later. However, a terrible freeze in Florida at the end of the 1800s killed the fruit trees and the industry. Lemon production didn’t come back to Florida until after World War II in the 1950s, but the citrus industry has remained strong in the United States ever since. In 2018, the United States grew 1.8 billion pounds of lemons and limes, which sounds like a lot, but only accounted for just over 4% of the world total. There are now more than 20 popular varieties of lemons grown around the world, most of which are grown in India.
A FINICKY FRUIT
Lemons are a hybrid of citrons and sour or bitter oranges that evolved through plant breeding over many centuries. Once a lemon tree is planted, it may take three to five years before it bears any fruit, but when it does, a single lemon tree can produce as many as 1,500 lemons in one growing season. Lemon trees can grow up to 20 feet tall and have sharp thorns on their twigs, which makes hand-picking a bit of a challenge, to say the least.
When it comes time to harvest the lemons, each one is hand-picked when it reaches a commercially acceptable size, which is determined by a ring that’s slipped around the lemon to gauge if it’s big enough. At the time of harvest, which happens up to ten times each year, lemons are at least 25% juice, by weight. Even today, mechanical harvesting of lemons is impossible because if they are handled too roughly, they will develop oil spotting on the outer peel, which is perfectly fine to eat, but may not look appealing enough to sell to grocery stores. In order to make it from the orchards to our fruit baskets without spoiling, lemons are picked while still green. After being cured to ripen, they can be stored for up to three months without going bad.
FUN FACT: The white pith of lemons is used for the production of pectin and the pulp is used for the production of citric acid.
Despite advances in plant breeding for many other crops, lemons are still very finicky. They have a very narrow growing region because if the tree is exposed to temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, it will not survive. Lemons can be scarred and the trees lose their leaves very easily when exposed to strong winds, so the use of wind breaks near lemon orchards can help protect them. So next time you give a lemon a squeeze, be gentle — it’s been through a lot.
NUTRITIOUS & DELICIOUS
Lemons are perhaps one of the most versatile fruits in the world. They are used for their juice and zest in everything from cooking to cocktails. Oil is also extracted from fresh lemon peel using a “cold-pressing” process that pricks and rotates the peel to release the oil. This oil is used to scent household cleaners and is touted as a remedy for many health ailments, from stress relief to clearer skin.
FUN FACT: The tiny dimples on the surface of the lemon peel are oil glands.
Aside from providing an acidic burst of flavor, lemons contain a whole lot of vitamin C — one lemon has roughly 70% of your Daily Value of vitamin C, which helps boost your immune system and also increases your body’s ability to absorb iron from plant-based foods. Because our products are made from seeds, which are high in plant-based (non-heme) iron, it is important to eat enough vitamin C along with them so you can reap all the benefits.