Meyer Lemon

Family: Rutaceae (Citrus family)
Genus: Citrus
Species: x meyeri

Meyer Lemon Fruit

Meyer Lemon Tree

Out with the old and in with the new! It’s time to move past the spicy cinnamon and fragrant evergreen boughs that brought such delight in December. We’re in a new year, and we need something fresh—but still sweet, even though many of us have resolved this month to become lean (forget the mean) gardening machines. How about the scent of lemon blossoms to lift the winter drears?

It’s true: I have a hankering to invite a lemon tree into my living room. Many of you know I’m a firm advocate of “right plant, right place” and so you might ask, “Just what business does she have wanting to grow citrus in Whatcom County?” Aren’t I always hammering home the idea that we need to grow things that appreciate our climate rather than exotics that by rights should be left to thrive elsewhere? Ah, another of my strong opinions is that our gardening pursuits should always have a little touch of whimsy. I reconcile the two by suggesting that each of us pick our battles carefully. I don’t have many fussy plants in my garden; but every so often I’m seized with the wild and crazy notion that I simply must involve myself with a botanical diva, a persnickety plant that I know will demand constant attention and lots of loving care. Once, it was a gardenia. Our co-existence was not peaceful and that experience landed firmly in the book of bad ideas. But I’m nothing if not an optimist. So I’m off on my Meyer lemon adventure.

I picked one of the few citrus that has a chance here. Lemons and limes—“acid” or “sour” citrus, contrasted with “sweet” citrus including grapefruit, oranges, and tangerines—have lower heat requirements. I’ve been told that commercial grapefruit growers, even in very warm climates, frequently leave their fruit to ripen on the tree for up to eighteen months. That’s a lot of heat units. Bellingham might not reach the same level in eighteen years. But it’s not only its relatively stout constitution that persuaded me to grow a Meyer. These lemons—actually a cross between an orange and a lemon—are a fruit unto themselves. Rounder than the common market-variety ‘Eureka’, Meyers are thin-skinned, more orange, and—to my taste—more flavorful. Still, I’m not going to stake the future of my lemon-pie production on the crop I’ll grow in my living room. If any fruit sets and matures, it will be a bonus. The tree is attractive enough—and the flowers are so fragrant—that as a houseplant, a Meyer lemon will triumph over a Philodendron anytime.

I’ll select a Meyer that’s been grafted onto dwarf rootstock, so neither I nor it will face the prospect of its growing into a full-sized, 12-foot tree. Fat chance, but it’s good to think ahead. Meyer lemons are also a favored bonsai subject—and yes, they do bear full-sized fruit—but that particular bug hasn’t bit me yet. I’ll put my grafted Meyer into a peaty soil mix and be prepared to feed it acid fertilizer in the spring. I will keep the soil moist but not soggy—good drainage is a must!—and mist its foliage often, to give it the humidity it craves and to discourage the spider mites that crave it. Comforted by the fact that the Meyer likes the settings on my thermostat—68 degrees during the day and 55 at night—I will put it by a window so it will get as much light as possible, but I’ll be prepared to add a source of additional light. I will hand-pollinate the blossoms if I am fortunate enough to see any. I will take the Meyer outside to catch the warm spring breeze—when it finally arrives—and I will be patient when it drops its leaves in protest over being moved at all, in or out, and asked to adapt to different conditions. I will be grateful, as I move it, that Meyers have fewer spikes than other citrus.

I will remember that its relatives have been adored by many before me. It was in 1908 that Frank Meyer, a USDA plantsperson, found one growing in China and brought it home. At that time, growing citrus was a passion in Europe and in some parts of North America. The Victorians really took citrus seriously. In fact, it was the drive to grow these tropicals indoors that first led to the development of what we now call “greenhouses” and were first known, in England, as “glasshouses” or sometimes, “crystal palaces.”

And yes, if I were truly adventurous, I could grow my own Meyer lemon from seed. However, at least seven years would pass before I had even a chance of seeing a blossom, not to mention fruit. Plus, citrus grown from seed tend to be sickly and spindly and have lots of spikes. I won’t take that route, secure in the knowledge that sources for Meyer lemons abound. It seems as if every major gardening publication has featured them in the past few months. I like to think I developed my craving to grow one, all on my own. However, we gardeners do tend to think alike in so many ways, and perhaps Citrus musthaveus is afoot in the land and has afflicted me along with everybody else.

I will keep you posted about my Meyer’s progress. And in the meantime, I wish each and every one of you the best with whatever you grow and whatever you do in this fresh, new year.