Skip to main content

How the Lemon was Invented

Image result for lemons

How do you make a lemon?  Silly question, isn’t it?  You just take the seeds out of one and plant them, and wait for the tree to come up, right?  That’s true, but it hasn’t always been that easy.  Lemons today are a widely cultivated citrus fruit, with a flavor used in cuisines of countries where no lemon tree would ever grow.  You might think that it was just a matter of ancient peoples finding the trees, enjoying their fruit and growing more of them, but that’s not true.  The lemon is a human invention that’s maybe only a few thousand years old.

The first lemons came from East Asia, possibly southern China or Burma.  (These days, some prefer to refer to Burma as Myanmar.  I’ll try to stay out of that controversy here and stick to fruit.)  The exact date of the lemon’s first cultivation is not known, but scientists figure it’s been around for more than 4,000 years.  The lemon is a cross breed of several fruits.  One fruit is the bitter orange, best known in the west for its use in marmalade, cocktails, and tea.  The bitter orange has about six different varieties, the best known being the Seville orange (the famous ingredient in marmalade) and the bergamot orange (used in Earl Grey tea).  The bitter orange itself is a hybrid of two other citrus fruits: the pomelo and the mandarin.

Image result for bitter orange
Bitter oranges

To create the lemon, the bitter orange was cross bred with the citron.  In most languages of Europe, citron is the word for lemon, deriving from the Latin word citrus.  This can cause some confusion, since the citron and the lemon are two different fruits.  Fortunately for English speakers, we use different words for them and thus have an easier time keeping them straight in our heads.  The citron looks a lot like the lemons that are so popular today.  The citron’s skin isn’t as smooth as the lemon’s, but the color is about the same.  The fruit looks different, but tastes about the same.  The main advantage a lemon has over a citron is that citrons don’t yield much juice; lemons do.  The citron is used a lot in traditional Chinese medicine, but as a foodstuff, it’s a lot less versatile than the lemon is.

Image result for citron
Note the thick skin of the citron.

Gradually the lemon made its way westward, eventually spreading around the Persian and Arab worlds.  By the first century BCE, lemons made their way to Italy.  In 1493, Christopher Columbus brought lemon seeds to the New World on his second voyage, spreading the fruit to five different continents.

In 1747, Scottish physician James Lind was researching the causes and preventions of scurvy, which was a particular plague for sailors, especially since sea voyages lasting for weeks and for months were becoming more common.  Lind conducted one of the first clinical medical trials in history, and discovered that lemon juice could prevent scurvy.  This was quite a breakthrough, since the concept of vitamins didn’t exist yet.  The Royal Navy started carrying lemon juice on all its ships, when possible, but it would be a while before lemons were easy to get in sufficient supply for the Royal Navy.  The Portuguese Navy had already figured out that citrus staves off scurvy, and were planting orange and lemon trees along their shipping routes by the late 1400s.  The distribution problem of lemons would ultimately be solved by the middle of the 19th century by a man named Lachlin Rose, who patented a product called Rose’s Lime Juice.  This worked as well as lemons, and the Royal Navy mandated that the product be issued to all ships.  This is the reason British sailors were known as “limeys”, a term that eventually became a pejorative for all British people.

Today there are over two dozen commercially produced varieties of lemons.  Besides flavoring fish, pastries and other foods, they’re also used in medicines and cleaners, making it one of humanity’s greatest innovations.


Popular posts from this blog

Betty Crocker: A Brief Biography

Long have our supermarket shelves borne products with the name Betty Crocker.  This name has long since lodged in our heads an essential part of americana.  It seems to evoke the past.  It seems to always have evoked the past, a past when life was simpler and Mother and Grandmother cooked at home, using time tested recipes and only the purest ingredients.  We can’t go back to that simpler, wholesome past, but we can give ourselves a Proustian shot of nostalgia by tasting the past we remember, or the past we only wish we could remember, but know must be so good.  That is the Betty Crocker brand.  You might have seen drawings of her, but have you ever actually seen the legend herself?  Here’s an image of Miss Crocker from a 1953 television ad:

The full "Betty Crocker" TV commercial.

Okay, that’s actually actress Adelaide Hawley, who played Betty Crocker in a number of commercials for the brand from 1949 to 1964.  Betty Crocker was born in 1921, so this representation looks to be…

The Star-Spangled Banner: The Original Lyrics

If you’re an American (and quite possibly even if you’re not), you’ve certainly heard the tune called “To Anacreon in Heaven” numerous times.  It’s a stirring melody, and can often sound very proud, and if someone asked you to hum a few bars, you probably could do a creditable job of it, even if you have no musical ability at all.  The tune is that familiar.  Of course, it has another name that you probably know better: “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

But the song’s first name was “To Anacreon in Heaven”.  The song asserts that Anacreon is in heaven, right from the first line.  Whether Anacreon actually is in heaven, I’ll take no position on, but he most certainly is dead.  Anacreon was a Greek poet who lived from circa 582 BCE to 485 BCE, which is a remarkably advanced age for the times.  Anacreon was celebrated for his songs about drinking and love and having a good time.  Maybe not the weightiest of literature, but even the most serious poets and thinkers need to take a break now and …

At, Hashtag, And Per Se

Since the invention of the typewriter in the 1860s, there has been little change to the keyboard used in English.  The position of the letters has remained the same, and the numbers and punctuation have as well. The advent of the personal computer has required additional keys, most of which have found their own standard spots on the keyboard, but for the most part, there haven’t been many changes to the original design.

If you look at the above keyboard, you can see there have been some changes. Keys for fractions don’t really exist anymore; nor does a key to write the ¢ symbol. But the ¢ key on this 1900 model typewriter also includes the @ symbol, which has been common on keyboards since the dawn of typewriters. It’s older than that, even. But of course it is: how else would anyone write an email address? Except… who are you going to email in 1900? No one was emailing anyone before 1972. That’s when programmer Ray Tomlinson invented email. He figured that if you’re going to …