The juicy lemons and oranges we relish in winter share an exotic past. In addition to being fragrant and delicious, citrus fruits have saved lives, enticed nobility, kept religious traditions alive and maybe even started the Mafia.
Fossilized leaves suggest citrus existed 7 million years ago, and it’s seen significant cultivation for 2,500 years. Every variety available today comes from four pedigreed ancestors: citron, pomelo, papeda and mandarin. These fruits swapped genes for thousands of years, creating tastier varieties as they evolved. Eventually humans got involved and what we see stacked at the grocery store is the end result: zesty lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruits bursting with vitamin C, folate and potassium.
A native of China, India and Malaysia, citrus often played a religious role. Citron perfumed Buddhist temples, its distinct shape conveniently resembling a human hand praying to Buddha. Jewish people used a gold, bumpy citrus fruit called an etrog for religious rituals as well as for medicine, to combat seasickness and intestinal problems, and as an antidote to poison.
Citrus accompanied Persian travelers westward along the Silk Road, arriving in the Mediterranean around 400 BC. The rare, tangy fruit delighted Mediterranean nobility, who bragged about its healing and cleaning powers. When lemons arrived in Rome years later, they quickly became a sign of privilege and wealth. Not so for the uppity aristocrats of the Middle Ages, who considered fresh fruit beneath them. Instead, they gorged on heavy foods and suffered nasty teeth, skin diseases, scurvy and rickets. The peasants, conversely, ate citrus with abandon, lapping up the nourishing juice and pulp so they’d have energy to work. Power to the peasants!
Citrus disappeared from the Mediterranean as sanitation declined, but enterprising Arabs kept it alive by simultaneously spreading the word of Islam and filling their gardens with colorful, aromatic citrus. From there things sped up. North African farmers brought citrus to Spain’s Alhambra. The tangerine arrived from — where else? — Tangiers. Valencia and Seville oranges appeared. The Chinese confirmed 27 citrus varieties. The sour flavors of Arabic cuisine caught on. A Scottish surgeon proved citrus curved scurvy. The Hapsburgs gave citrus the thumbs up — and importing citrus became big business.
In fact, it was such big business in Sicily in the 1800s that problems arose. There, among the sweetly scented groves, underhanded racketeers made offers that growers couldn’t refuse, wielding power by extortion and intimidation. These thuggish tactics came to define the Mafia, leading some historians to conclude that Cosa Nostra began in the citrus trade.
Which brings us to today — in our corner of the world, in our own gardens. Today, California’s $1 billion citrus industry is booming, but a threat is looming. A bacterial disease called huanglongbing, or citrus greening, is causing citrus trees to defoliate and die. Early symptoms include asymmetrical, blotchy leaves, green on one side and yellow on the other. Over multiple years, an infected tree produces smaller fruit, bitter juice, and dieback of leaves and limbs until succumbing altogether. So far there’s no cure and it’s on every arable continent. In fact, it’s in every county surrounding Marin, but amazingly it hasn’t reared its head here yet. Experts say it’s only a matter of time.
It’s hard to know when — and how hard — Marin will get hit. How will we make lemonade out of those lemons? In the meantime, all we can do is savor every squeeze that we already have and treat our citrus trees like the nobility they’ve served for millennia. Situate citrus where there’s plenty of warmth and sun (six hours a day in February). Provide organic, slightly acidic, well-draining soil (get your soil tested if you’re not sure your soil is up to snuff). Thin fruit to avoid overloaded branches. Protect from frost. Use drip irrigation. Add a layer of mulch.
Then slip a slice of lime into a margarita. It’s your turn to be part of history.