First things First, The Lemon
Lemon, the most common citrus fruit comes from a tree within the genus Citrus of the Rutaceae family. Although some genetic studies tell us that the lemon is an ancient hybrid, probably between bitter orange and citron, it has been an autonomous species propagated for centuries by grafting or budding. While the exact origin of this extraordinary fruit is lost in time, it unquestionably originated in Asia and has been grown around the world for thousands of years.
The Persian word “līmū”, is an all-encompassing term for citrus fruit, and the earliest references to it in mythology stem from Persian lore. Citrus first appeared in literature in the 10th-century in Arabic stories, and by the mid-15th century, during the heyday of the Maritime Republics, lemon seeds were transported by sea to the Caribbean islands and Europe.
The Citron (Citrus medica) is likely the oldest species, and one of one four original species from which today’s hybrids originate. A peculiar variety of citron known by its Middle Eastern name Ethrog was used in Palestine for the Feast of Tabernacles is a giant compared to other varieties: a single fruit can weight several kilos and is sweeter and juicier than a citron.
The Bergamot Orange
Legend has it that the bergamot originated in the Canary Isles, and Columbus brought it from there to other places in Europe. Other sources claim its birthplace in China, Greece or the Spanish city of Berga. A Spanish Moor did at some point sell a branch of the tree to Marcel Valentino from Reggio Calabria in southern Italy where the fruit is the most well known export even today.
Citrus in Asia
People have always known of the health benefits of citrus fruit. The citron for example, has been extolled for its associations with Buddhism, seen here as an artifact the Nephrite Jade Buddha’s Hand Citron, since it literally brought health and wellbeing. The Citrus medica (meaning “flesh-fingered” in Greek) has been used for millennia as an offering at Buddhist temples. In Asia it was used to protect against scurvy and promote healthy teeth. Not only high in ascorbic acid and vitamin c, citrus fruits are also rich in folate and potassium among other beneficial compounds and minerals. The earliest cultivation of citrus in fact goes back to at least 2500 years ago in Asia. In Sanskrit, the sacred text Vajasineyi Samhita called it jambhila, and one of the earliest attested references to citrus in literature comes from from the Chinese poet Ch’u Yuan (Qu Yuan) in the 4th century BCE, who praised the orange tree as a possible allegory of ideal leadership:
“Orange tree, nurtured by nature,
born to be adaptable to the soil and water here…
Your leaves green and flowers clean,
so delightful is the riotous profusion.
even though between layers of leaves there are thorns,
the fruits are so beautiful and round…”
Citrus fruit was gradually introduced westward from China, India and Southeast Asia into the Median kingdom and Persian Empire by the sixth century BCE and was diffused from there to the Mediterranean in the fourth century BCE. It was likely planted in Persia since the Greeks knew it as “Median fruit”, and Jewish tradition also maintains that the citron was brought back from Babylonian captivity and known as etrog. The Greek word kedros was the source of the Latin word citrus. The lemon or Citron was apparently known in Greece from Theophrastus and later in Rome by Dioscorides in his De Materia Medica in the first century CE where he names it as kedromela or citria.
Roman Philosopher Pliny the elder maintained that citrus fruits were an antidote to poison when taken in wine. And we know from the paintings in Pompeii, like the House of the Fruit Orchard and various mosaics that these fruits were cultivated and treasured.
The Roman love for citrus was not so common in the early Christian West when health conditions in the old cities were abysmal, where unmaintained aqueducts became virtual cesspools and cities were ruined. And so citrus fruits mainly disappeared from Mediterranean Europe for centuries until enterprising Arabs who treasured nature, fountains and gardens brought them back.
Citrus comes to Andalusia
Hybridized citrus were brought out of the Near East in a second wave with the eighth century spread of Islam. North African migrant farmers and botanical scientists brought citrus to Sicily in Southern Italy and Andalusia in Southern Spain (Al-Andalus in Arabic). The glorious castles of Alhambra and Alcazar were sweetened by citrus gardens, and the famous Bitter Orange of Seville was cultivated by Arab botanists. The Arabic text of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, even features an image of honey production with a citrus tree perhaps revealing the medical uses of the orange blossom as well. Moorish poets as well praised the bitter orange tree and its blossom and the pungent fragrance of Aazhar (orange blossom) as it was used to make perfumes and incense because of it’s anti-depressant properties. Here in Sevilla the white orange blossoms appear in winter and infuse the city with an intoxicating aroma through spring.
Likely this orange was cultivated not only for its pungent fragrance, but also because it stays green year round, providing shade in summer and thick swashes of lush green to line the streets all winter.
Citrus in Andalusia Today
Visitors to Seville often gaze in dismay at oranges lying in the streets waiting to be swept up. It seems so wasteful, but actually the fruit of the Citrus Aurantium (Sevilla’s Patron Orange) is so bitter, you wouldn’t really eat it raw, the leaves, flowers, flesh and skin must be prepared to be useful. Bitter oranges are perfect however for making marmalade because they have higher pectin content than sweet oranges, and the flowers are used to produce essences for aromatherapy. The leaves too have been used medicinally for centuries. In Chinese medicine herbal preparations made from bitter orange leaves and rinds were used to treat intestinal problems and mood disorders.
Aside from bitter orange, many citrus trees are grown successfully here. Orange, lemon, mandarine, satsuma, clementine, grapefruit, lime, kumquats and limequats are all cultivated here and have culinary as well as medicinal uses. Not many people know but Andalucía accounts for 31% of the total citrus production in Spain (6.7 million tonnes) and ranks second in the national ranking after Valencia (3.8 million tonnes).
Have we wet your whistle? Is so...
Our Citrus Experience box is available this month and it will put you in touch with the Citrus Trees of Andalucia even if you can’t come in person.
It includes everything you need to know about the history of cultivating oranges, lemons, mandarins, satsuma, clementines, grapefruits, limes and even some of the more unusual hybrids such as kumquats and limequats in Andalucia.
It also features a practical guidebook to current and ancient medical and spiritual uses of these fruits dating back to 2500 BCE. And you will be introduced to a variety of products made from citrus by way of recipes and products from local artisans such as soap, incense, candies, and infusions. You can get the box now HERE:
Our favorite local citrus farm is of course Ave Maria, who we have visited and blogged about in the past. If you make it here for a visit be sure to check out their guided tours, online resources and classes. If you mention Meeting Point Sevilla, they will give you a 10% discount on classes or tours!