The History of Lemons 🍋

Lemon history with many lemons

Lemons! You know what they are. Those yellow, acidic, brilliantly versatile fruits you can spot from a mile off.

It’s easy to forget how fantastic lemons on. They just become a part of your life and you don’t feel the need to celebrate their otherworldly excellence. That’s why we allowed a sponsored post about Laura’s Lopsided Lemonade Stand. Buy her lemonade. NOW!

Mindless advertising out of the way, we’re also here to explore the history of lemons and their impact on humanity.

What’s a Lemon?

Lemons (citrus limon) are yellow, oval-shaped citrus fruits with a thick, waxy, fragrant skin. Its innards are home to pulpy fruit goodness and acidic juice.

Lemons have a distinctive shape—that’s ellipsoidal, a surface where all plane sections are ellipses or circles. In other words, it’s an oval. Here’s one in action!

A slice of watermelon

Oh, wait, no… that’s a watermelon. Close, but no cigar (and all that). Having another shot and here we go. Lemon slices!

Lemon slices with a green leaf

The fruit is immediately identifiable thanks to its yellow colouring and green leaves from the top. Humans have used them for thousands of years for all manner of reasons.

Why? Because they’re bloody great! They’re as versatile as versatile can be and you can spice up tens of thousands of recipes with these yellow blighters.

They’re very diverse, far more so than the yellow ones you pick up from your local supermarket. Here are some examples:

  • Avalon
  • Variegated pink lemon
  • Verna
  • Primofiori
  • Bearss
  • Dorshapo

The Meyer lemon tree is the most common. It can grow to 10 feet tall, which is pretty neat. But enough of this! Let’s journey back in time to see who invented these things.

The History of Lemons

Believe it or not, humans didn’t invent lemons! The Earth grew them, getting one over us humans.

Lemons grow on small evergreen trees from the Ruaceae family. These are found in Asia. Mainly in Northern Indian, Myanmar, and China.

But the real origin of lemons will likely never be known, merely approximated.

The book of Leviticus nods to the “fruit of the beautiful tree” and other records, such as from Greek polymath Theophrastus, also nod to the citrus fruit. Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote of them in his work Natural History, too.

The remains of a Citron tree were found by archaeologists in Rome’s Forum, with seeds and pollen dating to 1st century BC. In the 400 years after Rome, lemon trees reached the Mediterranean and were introduced to Italy circa 200 AD.

Despite all this, it’s believed lemons weren’t used in cooking.

They were more for display, with the trees in wealthy Roman homes used as decorations and for their pleasant aromas wafting about the place. They became more symbolic than edible.

Lemons were actively cultivated across Persia, Egypt, and Iraq by 700 AD, where they were a trading commodity by 1,000-1,150 AD.

The trees began appearing in the Americas from 1493, when Italian explorer Christopher Columbus carried seeds with him to Spain. The subsequent Spanish conquests ensured lemon seeds went all over the shop.

Records indicate Florida and California were growing lemons with wild abundance by 1751. And sometime along the way, someone figured out eating them was a mighty tasty prospect. Kudos to that individual. You did good.

So, to recap! Over the course of thousands of years the lemon has shifted from something of a status symbol to foodie darling.

And lemons are more popular than ever.

In 2020, world production of the yellow beings hit 21.4 million tonnes. India and Mexico are the main producers. Indeed! The future’s bright. The future’s lemons.

Lemons in Popular Culture

Other than foodstuffs, lemons have also drizzled their acidic brilliance across pop culture and general life. Let’s have a gander at the best bits.

“When life gives you lemons…”

There’s an old proverb dating back to 1915. Christian anarchist and writer Elbert Hubbard coined it. It goes as follows.

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

Hubbard was writing an obituary for the dwarf actor Marshall Pinckney Wilder (1859-1915), with Hubbard praising the man’s enthusiastic attitude.

Of course, no one is forcing you to make lemonade at gunpoint or anything. It’s just a figure of speech promoting optimism.

Lemons and Scurvy

Scurvy! Huzzah! Yes, a nod here to Laurence Bergreen’s Over the Edge of the World, which explains this curse during the Age of Discovery.

Scurvy is documented as far back as Ancient Egypt in 1550 BCE. And in Ancient Greece when Hippocrates (460-370 BCE) described symptoms. AND in 406 BCE, when a Chinese monk by the name of Faxian wrote about ginger as a potential cure.

In the Middle East during the Middle Ages, records also show the people of their time were aware oranges helped cure the issue.

But in Europe, many a sailor died due to not having any real clue about it. British sailors were prescribed rations of citrus juice from 1795—although no one had any idea why it helped ward the disease off.

This reliance on lemons and limes led to Brits getting the name “limeys”.

That’s right! The derogatory slang term used at Brits was pisstaking their not dying horribly of scurvy. Clever stuff, slang users!

Lemon Tree With Peter, Paul and Mary

Okay, we’d never heard of the Lemon Tree song before. Thanks to Dr. Joe Schwarcz from the scurvy video for flagging it up for us!

The song was actually written by American singer and songwriter Will Holt (1929-2015) in the late 1950s. It was inspired by the 1930 Brazilian song Meu Limão, Meu Limoeiro (My Lemon, My Lemon Tree) by José Carlos Burle.

Peter, Paul and Mary (who didn’t use the Oxford comma in their band name) were an American folk group from New York. They formed in 1961 and did a cover version in 1962—that was a hit in the US charts. Here are some lyrics.

One day beneath the lemon tree, my love and I did lie,
A girl so sweet that when she smiled, the stars rose in the sky,
We passed that summer lost in love, beneath the lemon tree,
The music of her laughter hid my father’s words from me.

Lemon tree, very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet,
But the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat,
Lemon tree, very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet,
But the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat.

Good for them. Lemons, you see? They can make you famous.

Led Zeppelin’s Lemon Song

In their inimitable way, Led Zeppelin took a distinctly filthy look at the world of lemons, dating, and interpersonal stuff.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out it’s one of the band’s filthiest songs, with overtly sexual lyrics nodding towards hanky-panky. Utterly disgraceful. This should be banned!

Good song, though! It appeared on the Led Zeppelin II album in 1969.

The Stone Roses and Lemons

The Stone Roses lemon

Manchester’s indie band The Stone Roses became synonymous with lemons during their run.

The above lemon adorned drummer Reni’s drum kit during the band’s reformation from 2011-2017. And across much merchandise. Plus, there’s also the matter of this little thing.

The Stone Roses eponymous debut album

Back in 1989, guitarist and artist John Squire provided the Jackson Pollock inspired artwork for The Stone Roses’ eponymous debut album.

It’s regularly voted as one of the best albums ever. But the lemons aren’t there for show, they represent revolution and social change across many songs.

The album nods towards the 1968 Paris (and global) student riots, where young academics would suck on lemons to take the edge off the CS gas police were hurling at them in canisters.

Bye Bye Badman hints at that overtly with these lyrics.

Choke me smoke the air,
In this citrus sucking sunshine I don’t care,
You’re not all there.

Some of the band’s fans don’t seem to realise it, but The Stone Roses’ inferences in their lyrics are anti-monarchy, anti-Tory, and calling for a new era of life in the UK.

Sadly, that’s not been achieved as the public continues to vote Conservative. All power to the lemons in the next General Election, please.

How to Cook With Lemons

Ermahgerd!! The Hottest Man Alive (trademarked) is nifty with lemons! Could Jamie Oliver be anymore perfect!?

Well, if you’re looking to spruce up your cooking then his antics above are a nifty way to get the most out of your lemons.

And you can apply your newfound knowledge to all sorts of recipes. For example, below is Mr. Oliver (aka The Hunk-o-tron) with supermassive lemons rustling up something fancy.

There are loads of recipes you can use lemons with. It’s one of the most versatile fruits out there, after all! Fight off that scurvy with the likes of:

  • Lemonade
  • Lemon drizzle cake
  • Lemon baked cheesecake
  • Lemon curd
  • Courgette & lemon risotto
  • Lemon sorbet
  • Spaghetti with lemon and olives

The list is (not literally) endless! All what’s holding you back here is only the limits of your imagination.

So! Go forth into the street, head into a supermarket, buy lemons, and cook yourself into a psychotic frenzy.

16 comments

  1. This was so freakin’ admirably researched and ably presented that even I ~ known far and wide to all one of my friends as “The great complainer,” was unable, on first reading, to find a single cause for objection.

    As you can imagine, that had me MI-ghty miffed. So I read it again.

    And it’s a good thing I did!

    Mr. Wajipof (did I spell it wrong?). Um.

    A TEN FOOT lemon???

    That’s ridiculous (I’m back in stride, thanks for your touching concern).

    Imagine the juicer you’d need to have hauled in! You couldn’t let any sunshine into the barn in which you took the two-man saw to it or everything in sight would end up all stiff and totally bleached. And a mountain of zest that size should more properly be called a skiing attraction.

    No, no, I’m sorry (really not), but this won’t do at all. Can we agree to keep our lemons under, say, a single foot in length?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have always loved lemons. Great squeezed on chicken, and these days I use it in the seltzer I drink constantly (it is a problem, yes) along with limes. At least I’ll never get scurvy. My mother also used to bake an excellent lemon pound cake — the thought brings back memories of the 90s. Simpler time.

    Thanks for this history, I didn’t know a lot of these details. Also that Peter, Paul, and Mary didn’t use the Oxford comma, which drives me crazy. If you’re going to use the one comma in that context, go all the way!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Truth! The glory of lemons is they’re the great protector against scurvy, one of the GREAT threats of our time.

      Nice to find a fellow Oxford comma supporter. Can you believe it, where I work right now it’s fervent policy to NOT use the Oxford comma. Appalling. Not even lemons can make up for that!

      Liked by 1 person

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