The illustration on a ceramic tile found in the ruins of Pompeii following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., showed that citrus trees already existed during that time. A 2nd century mosaic tile from the ruins of a Roman villa in Carthage, North Africa was of a lemon growing on a tree branch. Despite those signs, the age of the lemon tree and its place of origin remain open questions.
The precise origin of the lemon tree (Citrus limon) is unknown, although some botanists believe it comes from Kashmir, north of India. Another possibility is that the lemon tree originated in southeast Asia, based on ancient documents that suggest a cultivation history of over 4,000 years. There are also records of the lemon tree’s introduction in Italy in about the year 200, and Iraq and Egypt by around the year 700. Lemon trees reached China between the eighth and the 13th centuries.
New World Time Frame
In 1493, lemon trees arrived in the “New World” in the form of seeds. Christopher Columbus brought them to America on one of his voyages of discovery. By 1565 lemon trees grew at Saint Augustine, Florida and coastal South Carolina.
Lemon trees grew in California by the mid-18th century and subsequently in northeastern Florida by the 1800s. A freeze in 1886 dealt a severe blow to the development of lemon trees and fruit production in Florida. Another freeze in 1894 devastated the commercial lemon industry in Florida and the business was abandoned. In 1953 there was a revival of lemon tree cultivation and commercial production of lemons to meet the demand for frozen concentrate and natural, cold-press lemon oil. By 1975, there were more than 8,700 acres of lemon trees growing in Florida, although by 1980, these numbers were down by around half due to freezes. While California’s lemon trees and fruit production have fared very well comparatively during the same period of time, foreign competition caused some California growers to switch to oranges instead or to destroy their lemon groves.
The Meyer Lemon Tree is named for Frank Meyer who introduced it to the United States from China in 1908. In the 1940s, the discovery that the Meyer Lemon Tree carried tristeza and tatter leaf viruses raised a red flag. In 1970, a new, virus free “Improved Meyer Lemon” was introduced. It is the hardiest among all dwarf citrus trees when it comes to surviving the cold and adapting to most climates. The University of California released virus-free Meyer Lemon Trees in 1975. In 1976, the California Department of Food and Agriculture banned propagation of non-improved Meyer Lemon Trees.
On the 21st century world stage, Guatemala and Mexico grow lemon trees primarily to manufacture lemon peel oil. Other leading commercial growers include Argentina, Chile, Greece, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon, Australia and South Africa.