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Merry Citrusmas and Happy New Year

Having grown up in the Midwest and spent my early adulthood in Oregon, it wasn’t until I got to Louisiana that I discovered the joy of eating citrus fruit from one’s own yard. Our property already held a luscious satsuma tree (Citrus unshiu) and an equally productive Meyer lemon tree (Citrus meyeri) well before we arrived. For those readers unfamiliar with the satsuma, it is a variety or mandarin orange and the sweetest of all citrus fruits. Usually seedless, it is very easy to peel and perfect for an afternoon snack on a hot day, for juice, salad dressing, or any other type of cooking as desired. The Meyer lemon, which was introduced to the U.S. in 1908 by USDA agriculturalist Frank Meyer, was originally cultivated in China, where it was developed thousands of years ago as a citron and mandarin orange/pomelo hybrid. Its fruits are larger and more rounded than other lemons and are also fairly sweet – – for a lemon, that is. Its unique ancestry lends a special delectability to the Meyer lemon.

You haven’t truly had good lemonade until you’ve had lemonade made from Meyer lemons. One of the great good fortunes of living in South Louisiana is that I get to have Meyer lemonade all year long.

In the late 1940’s nearly all the Meyer lemon trees in the U.S. were intentionally destroyed in order to prevent the spread of a citrus virus. No longer grown commercially, present-day Meyer lemon trees in this country are produced from rootstock of a virus-free variety that was developed in the 1950’s (thank you, U.C.-Davis!), and in order to find them you need to either grow your own or know someone (like me!) who’s happy to share their annual harvest.

Central and South Louisiana are warm enough year-round to host a luscious variety of citrus fruits, including grapefruit, oranges, lemons, limes, kumquats, mandarin oranges, tangelos, tangerines and satsumas. You would’ve laughed to see the double-take I did the first time I walked by a fruiting grapefruit tree and realized what I was seeing. As both a great lover of grapefruits and someone who’s not allowed to eat them, I had to turn and walk away quickly so as not to be overcome by the ripening yellow temptations hanging off of those limbs. Prior to the 2016 flood our yard hosted a kumquat tree solely for my own partaking, since Tom doesn’t like them. That flood destroyed the kumquat tree but, somehow, our other fruit trees pulled through and Tom has planted more since then, a few of which were then taken out by the flood of 2021. (“Why are you still living there?” you may be wondering. But that story is for another day.)

A Meyer lemon can be nearly as big as a small grapefruit

Our two hero trees, those stalwart and prolific producers of mouth-watering citrus that have survived two extended periods below zero (in 2021 and 2022) as well as both floods, are a Meyer lemon tree and a satsuma tree. In addition to providing us with delicious fruit and juice to enjoy the whole year long (courtesy of our freezer), they also provide valuable shade and refuge for the cardinals, hummingbirds, chickadees, warblers and other birds that frequent the yard. Every spring we see at least one pair of Brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) running in and out from under the lemon tree, but we’ve never been able to find a nest!

If you’ve read The Gecko in the Bathtub: Encounters with Marvelous Creatures, you know that the late fall brings to our property an onslaught of Asian lady beetles, Harmonia axyridis, another species that was intentionally imported to the U.S., this one to help control scale insects and aphids. Unlike Meyer lemons, however, there’s nothing sweet about the Asian lady beetle. These insects swarm in late fall and congregate in warm climates like ours, preferring to overwinter inside human dwellings into which they enter through the minutest of cracks and openings. Even getting our house re-roofed; even getting bi-monthly pest control treatments; even completely renovating and re-sealing the house twice since we moved in has not mitigated the advance of these bugs.

One of the things that brings us solace during the lady beetle storm is the opportunity to harvest the fruit from our two most productive trees, since both satsumas and Meyer lemons come to full ripeness right around Thanksgiving, which is exactly when the lady beetles arrive. We are happy to brave the swarms to get to our marvelous fruits.

We pick the satsumas first, as they ripen a bit sooner and are preyed upon by opossums if given the chance.

Interior of satsuma tree with opossum damage
A bucket of orange sweetness

The washed satsumas that don’t get eaten or put into salads get juiced for later consumption.

The juicing station

Lemons are next, as Tom and I tag-team. Each picking starts with an offering of gratitude to the tree, usually a bit of oatmeal scattered around the roots.

An offering of gratitude to the tree for sharing its bounty with us

We pick lemons by the bucketful, wash each one individually, then cut them in half.

I prepare the lemon halves by removing as many seeds as possible ahead of juicing in order to prevent the seeds from gumming up the juicer. It’s amazing to me that one half of one lemon can contain as many as twenty or thirty seeds that range from the size of the head of a pin to half the size of my thumbnail.

Sometimes an unexpected guest comes inside with the lemons

We estimate that our Meyer lemon tree bore somewhere between one thousand and fifteen hundred lemons in 2022, having made a spectacular comeback from the 2021 flood. If the tree produced a thousand lemons and each lemon had 40 seeds, or 60 … well, you do the math. The tree has unquestionably done an outstanding job of ensuring a next generation, and the tree doesn’t even know that my son in Florida is growing an offspring Meyer lemon tree from seeds he got from lemons that I sent him two years ago.

While this year’s scourge of lady beetles will likely last until mid-March, we have harvested all the lemons we can manage this time around, alas. Hundreds of damaged lemons still hang from branches that hang, listless, their leaves curled by the four straight days of sub-zero temperatures that blanketed so many of us over Christmas weekend. As the remaining fruits drop from the tree Tom and I will pick them up and throw them into the woods around our property, returning them to the earth from which they came. Then we’ll come inside and have a glass of lemonade.

For more information about growing citrus in Louisiana see the LSU Ag Center’s website for Louisiana Home Citrus Production by clicking here. Merry Citrusmas and Happy New Year!

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  1. WOW! I LOVE the pic of the tiny frog on the Meyer lemon! You’ve got some fabulous photos here, Janina. So interesting to learn about the history of the Meyer Lemon, and the treachery of the Lady Beetle! Who would think with such a lovely name as Lady Beetle they would be such nefarious creatures! I got ONE Meyer lemon off my brand new tree this year, but it had the juice of 2 or 3 regular lemons. I wish my mandarin orange trees that I planted last Spring were half the size of your lovely citrus trees, but I’d have had to plant them 20 years ago for that to be the case! Thank you for your beautiful writing, wonderful pictures and sharing your great love of all things in nature! May 2023 be your best year ever! Much love,

    1. Thank you Helen, and the same wishes are coming to you from the bayou! The froggies never cease to entertain, year ’round, in keeping with lemony longevity.

  2. What a lovely Meyer Lemon story. I’m sorry I missed this one. Here’s to growing citrus-it can’t be done in Oregon unless of course I bring the tree inside during the winter. Oh how I envy you and yours. 🍋

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