As gardeners, we are always looking for that special plant to add to our inventory. It is always most satisfying when it presents a challenge and the outcome is successful. I was intrigued by the sight of a Meyer lemon tree, and, happily, this delicious dwarf beauty is now a thriving addition to my collection of tropicals.
A Meyer lemon tree is a tremendous asset, providing good looks and incredible fruit. It is a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange, resulting in a fruit that is sweeter, far juicier and more thin-skinned. The absence of a thick rind makes it almost impossible to ship, because it is easily damaged. Available here briefly only at holiday time, the fruit is coated with beeswax to protect, preserve and ensure its freshness.
The history of the tree is fascinating. In the early 1900s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent agent Frank Meyer to Asia to seek out new plant species that could be successfully cultivated and distributed commercially. In 1908, he discovered the lemon that bears his name. The trees adapted well in Florida, California and Texas, but because of the fruit's fragile skin, they were not shipped beyond these areas. In the 1960s, a virus wiped out most of the species. The stock that survived is called the Improved Meyer lemon, and this is the wonderful dwarf that is available today for the home gardener.
It really did not make its presence felt nationally until Martha Stewart discovered what wonderful flavor this lovely fruit brought to the table. With her decree, the foodies followed. Not only does she have good taste, but also she truly knows what tastes good. This fruit takes the standard lemon essence to new heights.
The practical way to enjoy this distinctive fruit is by growing it in a container. Its main requirement will be a position in a warm, sunshine-filled spot outdoors when the temperature is consistently above 65 degrees in spring, and a south or southwest facing window in fall/winter that receives six to eight hours of bright light. Apartment dwellers, if you have the proper light exposure, this tree can be grown inside year-round as a houseplant.
The container itself is an important choice. This tree prefers to be really snug, so choose a pot sized no more than 2 inches greater than the original purchase size. If it is planted in an oversized pot, the roots will be overwhelmed by the amount of moisture that collects. It needs a tight fitting environment and will object vehemently to overwatering. Terra cotta is the type of pot recommended by the growers, as it is porous and allows the plant to dry out between waterings. This does not work for me because of its heavy weight. Moving the tree seasonally is a much easier job when you chose a lighter, high-quality plastic or fiberglass container. With any pot, adequate drainage is essential. Always keep the plant elevated on a plant stand to ensure that the roots do not sit in water.
Once you get the tree, repot it with a soilless potting mix. I use Promix. To this you can add handfuls of peat moss, compost, composted bark, chicken grit and some lime. These amendments all result in a porous medium that will absorb moisture but also drain well. Proper drainage is key to the well-being of the plant. Put nothing at the bottom of the container that will impede the flow of water. The old philosophy of placing broken shards and packing peanuts there is totally outdated because these were found to create a moisture barrier that not only blocked root growth but also left them in a far too wet environment. I do place a piece of burlap or some screening over the drainage holes to keep the potting medium inside the container.
Citrus trees prefer to be in soil that is nearly dry, so water with a light hand. It is best to invest in a moisture meter to determine the real level of need. When the top of the container feels dry and the meter reads almost in the dry zone, it is time to water. Plants that are outdoors should be watered once or twice a week. Monitor the needs of the tree when it is inside and water when it is on the dry side with one-fourth to a half-gallon depending on the size of the pot. When you water, water well, so that it flows out the drainage holes. Infrequent, adequate watering will result in a happy plant.
Fertilize as lightly as you water. Good choices are Growmore Citrus and Avocado fertilizer and Espoma Citrus Tone. These can be purchased online. In winter, discontinue fertilizing and begin again when you see the appearance of new growth in spring. These fertilizers are scattered on top of the potting mix and can be applied seasonally.
Meyer lemon trees are supposedly self-pollinating, but this is easily accomplished when they are outdoors and the wind and insects are available to spread the pollen. When you are growing inside and your tree is in blossom, you can fulfill this process by using a cotton swab to gently move the yellow pollen from around the center of the flower from the anthers to the pistil. I bought my grandchildren a dwarf Meyer lemon from Logees for the holiday so they could experience this process and then watch the fruit develop.
It is said that all good things come in time, and in this case it takes a year to a year and a half of growth to bear fruit. Until that time you must contend with the disappointment of blossom and fruit drop until the tree matures to the point that it is capable of holding the fruit and allowing it to grow and ripen.
When buying, be sure you get the Improved Meyer lemon, meaning that it is virus-free stock. In a container it will eventually reach 6 feet. It is a dwarf and should be placed in a pot that is no more than 14 inches wide when fully grown. Logees sells an even smaller tree that will grow to just 3 feet and can be kept happily in an 8-inch pot. This tree is its most requested item. Either one will benefit from occasional pruning to achieve fullness. This is best achieved by pinching out the tips of new growth. It is best to prune for shape when the tree is in its infancy.
This is a true gem to add to your collection. There is joy in just the visual appearance. The stunning white blossoms seem to glow against the dark green almond-shaped leaves. When the fruit does develop, the taste is unparalleled. The foodies describe it as adding brightness to a dish, but I feel it intensifies and heightens the flavor of all foods where it is incorporated. If you do not have the patience to wait for the tree to mature and produce, the fruit can be ordered online from December through March. If you find yourself with a generous supply that is in peril of going bad, just juice the lemons and put this liquid gold in ice cube trays and freeze. Here is a recipe that will have you begging for more:
Meyer Lemon Pie
6 egg yolks
2 cans of condensed milk
1 cup of Meyer lemon juice
1 large 9-inch graham cracker crust
Beat egg yolks, then stir in condensed milk and lemon juice. Pour mixture into the pie shell. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 minutes. Cool and top with whipped cream or whipped topping.
Susan Silverman, a master gardener from Murrysville, was a co-winner, large garden category, of the 2006 Great Gardens contest.