February 24, 2007

Lemons or Limes?

Are these lemons or limes?

When I first came to Honduras, I thought that we only had limes available here. El Jefe informed me that they were green lemons, not limes. I wondered why the lemons were picked green, but then I learned later why the lemons were green.

Our lemons look much different than the large, thick-skinned, elliptical yellow fruits that you see in U.S. grocery stores. They are generally small, round, thin-skinned, and almost never have seeds. Sounds like limes, doesn't it? Actually, after awhile I began to wonder if I had just forgotten the difference between the taste of lemon and lime and wasn't even sure what I was using anymore.

I couldn't understand why we couldn't find limes. Limes are very popular for many recipes of Central American and Caribbean countries and for some of my Tex-Mex recipes, limes are the thing and lemons just won't do. And for Margaritas? Limes!

We asked at every vivero (plant nursery) if they had limas (limes). Most didn't even know what we were talking about. So for awhile I resigned myself to living the rest of my life with only lemons. Then I read that Key limes (Citrus aurantifolia) come true from seed, unlike most citrus plants.

I mentioned this to an internet friend in Iowa, who asked a friend of hers in Florida if she could send me some seeds. She very kindly did, but the seeds were crushed by the postal machines along with my hope of having limes at some point in my future. I tried germinating them anyway because a few didn't look too badly damaged, but no success.

Key lime seedlings (Citrus aurantifolia)Then Bound for Ceiba, who was coming to La Ceiba, brought me some Key lime seeds! Hallelujah! About two-thirds of them germinated and are growing slowly but seem to be doing well. (Thank you Bound, that was an even better present than the chocolate chips!) This picture is from November 24 and the two photos below are from December 26 and February 23.

I have many more little trees than I need but I plan to give some away. (Yes, I never give up on trying to share my gardening treasures even though I have a hard time finding anyone who wants them). I also plan to give some to the agricultural university here in La Ceiba. When we asked about limes there before, they expressed an interest in doing some tree grafts if I could get a branch into the country but it's against the law to bring plants into the country.

Key lime seedlings (Citrus aurantifolia)Another thing that confused me was that often the lemons in the stores or markets are called, "Limón Persa," (Persian Lemons). Not being a citrus expert by any means, I had heard of Persian Limes, but never Persian Lemons. The fruits are sometimes also referred to as limón Indio.

My 'Fruits and Condiments of the Humid Tropics' book from the Honduran agricultural university clarified that for me. It says that the origin of the Limón Persa plant is unknown, but is thought to be a hybrid between the lima mexicana (Citrus aurantifolia or lime) and the cidra (Citrus medica Linn. or citron). But then I saw that the Honduran book gives the botanical name for this plant as Citrus latifolia Tan. which is the botanical name for Tahitian limes! So do we have lemons or limes? Do you see why I am so confused?

Key lime seedlings (Citrus aurantifolia)The only other lemon or lime mentioned in the book is limón agrio (botanical name Citrus limon Burm. f.) or sour lemon. The book mentioned that these lemons have seeds and are hardly ever served fresh. Instead they are used in the fabrication of juices and other food products and are rarely cultivated in Central America.

The other day I found some limes mixed with some lemons that we bought at the grocery store. As I cut one, I smelled that unmistakable fragrance of lime. Then I tasted it and knew it was a lime! I was quite relieved that I hadn't forgotten what a lime tasted like. That was really bothering me. Who knows where the limes came from or whether they will ever be available again. Maybe they were from a tree that had reverted back to Citrus aurantifolia.

A wonderful online book from Purdue University, 'Fruits of Warm Climates,' indicates that Key limes lost favor with much of the U.S. commercial industry because they are more cold sensitive than Tahitian limes and because the spiny thorns make it difficult to pick the fruit on a large scale.

Key limes, also commonly called Mexican limes, are generally smaller than the Tahitian lime and have seeds, whereas the Tahitian lime doesn't. But Key limes are also widely regarded as the more flavorful of the two varieties. This picture from the online book shows the comparison of Tahitian limes on the left and Key limes on the right. The fruit that we buy here is more often closer to the smaller variety.

Fruits of Warm Climates indicates that in most Spanish-speaking countries lemons are known as limón, limón real, or limón agria. The Honduras book says the same. Fruits of Warm Climates indicates that in Spanish limes are called lima ácida, lima chica, limón criollo, limón corriente, or limón agria. Did you notice that limón agria was listed twice? But the Honduran book says that the tree, limón agrio (with an 'o' because trees take the masculine form of the Spanish word, whereas fruits take the feminine form), is the common name for sour lemon.

We buy lemons (or do we buy limes?) at least every two weeks. Sometimes they are a little larger, usually smaller, but in all these years, we have rarely ever had a lemon with seeds, indicating that these are not Key limes or sour lemons. They taste like lemons to me but according to my Honduran book, these should be Tahitian limes. Who knows? All I know is that in 3 or 4 years, I'll be using Key limes for sure.

I've spent all day on this article and I've read it over and over and I'll have to say that it is the most confusing article I've ever written. Sorry about that.

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