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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.

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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.

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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.


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