Dwarf oranges or calamondins make great houseplants as the leaves have a lustrous polish on their upper surfaces and given enough light, they produce tasty citrus fruit. The fruits, mostly ripens in winter, so to add that familiar fruity fragrance of Christmas to your home, you should buy plants now.
Mini Calamondin trees make excellent houseplants producing delightfully sweet, fragrant, creamy white blossom and edible fruits at the same time
Plants usually have fruits growing alongside the beautiful waxy, ivory coloured flowers, which in some varieties often have a hint of purple. Sometimes the small fruits are sour enough to pucker your mouth and make your lips curl, but you’ll find that they make great marmalade and taste great when soaked in brandy!
The most impressive plants for sale as houseplants are trained as bonsai but regardless of their size and shape, all citrus plants can be relied on to bloom more or less the year-round.
Citrus flowers fill the air with the pleasant aroma of orange blossom
The minimum night temperature for most citrus to thrive indoors is 10-13C and whilst they will adapt to lower light conditions, for them to reliably produce fruit in future, plants will need around 5-6 hours of direct sunlight daily.
Flowers that develop will need pollinating too, so it’s best to give them a bit of encouragement by using an artist paintbrush to distribute the pollen from flower to flower. Don’t despair, however, if some of the flowers or small fruits fall off, as this is natural and inevitable.
Whilst lemon trees are available at around 60cm tall, they tend to be offered mostly as larger, bushy specimens. These are usually bought for growing in a conservatory during the winter months and used to furnish the patio in the summer.
For patios, the ideal form for a container is a standard, which with routine pruning can be created in three to five seasons providing the plant is potted on annually each spring to keep it actively growing.
To grow a standard from scratch, when planting, tie the main vertical stem to a stake and shorten any side shoots by one-third. Once the main stem has reached the required height, prune it back to a healthy bud to encourage side shoots to form and produce a bushy head. In subsequent seasons remove side shoots to leave a straight bare trunk and repeatedly pinch the crown to produce a well-balanced round lollipop shaped plant.
Lemons are self-fertile, which means you’ll have a slice of lemon to garnish your G&T even if you only have one plant
Recommended varieties to grow at home are the compact and easy variety, La Valette, the fussier but equally prolific Meyers Lemon that is perfect for if your space is limited, and the much bigger Quatre Saisons (which you may find listed in catalogues as Garey’s Eureka) that produces the heaviest crops of lemons. In a heated conservatory, you’ll also find that the variety Four Seasons does well.
Other varieties worth trying are Imperial, which is a cross between a lemon and a grapefruit. It has the slightly sweeter and spicy tang of a Pomelo and crops well once a year on a vigorous bush. Then there is the amazing Ponderosa, which produces lemons the size of grapefruits with a thick skin that is perfect for making candied peel and that famous Italian liqueur Limoncello.
The oversized round citrus fruits of Pomelo have a textured rind ranging in colour from yellow to green, with pulpy fresh that’s creamy white, bright pink, or somewhere in between. Pomelos also have a much thicker pith than other citrus varieties. Like many of its relatives, pomelos can vary between being filled with seeds, to having very few or no seeds. Eat them as you would do grapefruit and try in a salad or use in a marinade, make them into jam, or use the sweet, tangy juice for a cocktail
Lemons fruits take about nine months to swell and ripen and even small plants usually produce around a dozen fruits. When harvesting cut them with a short stem and store them in cool, well-ventilated conditions. As the fruits last in good condition on the plant for a couple of months or more, you might find that you have fruits on your patio tree to pick as and when required for summer drinks.
In order to treat ailments from stomach cramps to malaria, people in the 18th century would drink quinine water. However, like a lot of medicines, the bitter taste made it an unpleasant elixir until some clever individual decided to sweeten it making it more palatable and possibly created one of the most iconic drinks of all time, the Gin & Tonic
Vitamin rich citrus fruits are good for fighting colds, lowering cholesterol and providing anti-cancer properties. Limes are also a good diuretic and have antibiotic properties and in many dishes can be a good substitute for salt. So, before you use up all your limes in your G&T’s, put them to good use in a recipe to beat lethargy and give energy by simply whizzing one up with carrots, beetroot and strawberries plus an orange or two in a food processor – it’s a real tonic!
Got a taste for the unusual?
Tahiti lime is a good starter plant. It produces seedless fruits that change colour when ripe to light yellow. It is fairly resistant to cold and can flower three or four times a year, which means you can have a constant supply of fruit ready to pick, so you’ll never be stuck for a slice to go with your G&T!
You should also try growing Kaffir limes for a fresh supply of unique perfumed leaves for Thai recipes
Kaffir limes can be grown as pot plants indoors in the UK. They like full sun and well drained soil (so that means keep it on the dry side) and you need to use a specialist citrus feed all year as, like all citrus, they have a very high demand for the trace elements that are usually lacking in ordinary plant foods. The fruit juice is seldom used in cooking but the peel of the fruits imparts a wonderful piquant flavour to Thai curry pastes and soups.
Mandarin, Satsuma, Clemetines and Tangerines are mostly sweeter than their other citrus cousins and have bright orange skin that is easy to peel and inner segments that are easily separated. There are seedless varieties, which are useful as a tasty addition to salads.
Kumquats, known as Chinese Oranges, are a close relation to citrus and produce numerous tiny fruits that are eaten whole, rind and all. They are more cold tolerant than other citrus varieties and although they have the potential to reach 4.5m tall, they are incredibly slow, so make good windowsill and patio plants. Whilst the fruits can be used to make jelly and marmalade, they are far better eaten fresh and used as a garnish for cocktails as you would olives.
Buddah’s Hand might look like a lumpy lemon with fingers but it does smell and taste divine
Buddah’s Hand smells and tastes a bit like a sweet lemon but with a hint of lavender! In China and Japan it is often used indoors as an air freshener and mostly served as a delicacy during New Year celebrations to symbolize happiness, wealth and longevity. The fruit, which has no pulp or seeds, can be used to flavour alcoholic drinks and salad dressings.
The Etrog citron looks like a large, knobby and sometimes ribbed lemon
One characteristic of the Etrog citron or Citrus Medica (available from www.lubera.co.uk) is that is has a very thick rind and aromatic skin. The fruit has a dry, sour taste and has many, many seeds. Etrog is thought to be the forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden and are primarily grown for Jewish thanksgiving, the Sukkot harvest festival, which is held in September or October. The riual requires that an Etrog fruit be held in the left hand along with a bouquet containing a palm branch, three myrtle branches and two date palm tree branches.
To prepare the fruit, cut it lengthwise and remove the small amount of fruit within. The peel and white pith can be boiled to remove the bitterness, and then cooked in a mixture of sugar and water to add sweetness. Candied citron can be used in desserts, marmalade and fruit cake and the peel can be also be used to flavour savory dishes and to flavour vodka.
Like all citrus plants, it is sensitive to cold; down to -2C. The plant loses its foliage in the winter, then in spring the Etrog citron grows profusely again.
Red lemon or Citrus limonimedica pigmentata, which is also known as the Mulled Wine Lemon
This red lemon (available from www.lubera.co.uk) has the typical shape of a culinary lemon; changes colour from green to yellow as it ripens, then the peel slowly turns strong red. It tastes like a lemon, but the peel is quite thick and the fruit pulp contains little juice. Like a citron the aromatic peel can be grated and used in sweets or cocktails. It can be grown in a cold greenhouse.
The hardy citrus Yuzu easily tolerates -9C and can endure even colder temperatures for a short time
It is believed that citrus Yuzu originated from a cross between Ichang papeda (Citrus Ichangensis) and the mandarin orange (Citrus reticulata, Satsuma mandarin). Citrus Ichangensis is known for its excellent winter and frost hardiness and the Satsumas can endure some minus degrees. Some botanists also rank the citrus Yuzu as its own citrus species, therefore the competing name Citrus x junos.
Yuzu, which is available from www.lubera.co.uk, can be harvested in autumn and spring in the UK. It is sour tasting, like lemon, but more interesting, with a very slight bitter note. Yuzu is popular in Japanese cuisine; in addition to the juice, the peel with its intense fragrance and essential oils can be used. Yuzu is also gaining importance in the avant-garde cuisine of the West.
Citrus sinensis or Blood Orange ‘Sanguinello Moscato’ is available from Lubera
This compact blood orange is compact and largely thornless. The flower buds are white, red dotted, the colour indicates the colour of the fruit, which is oblon, oval and contains little or no seed. Cool temperatures are necessary for colour formation. Perfect for juice and eating fresh this healthy fruit has an antioxidant effect. It is frost hardy down to -2C and needs to be grown bright and cool and never warm. Do not start the overwintering too early, otherwise the colour formation will not progress sufficiently
Bartenders love limes as the tasty and colourful fruits are perfect for adding a sour twist to a range of summer drinks. They can be grown in UK but are sensitive to cold and don’t thrive in temperatures under 10C
Of all the lemons for pots, Meyer is one of the best as it has a compact, tight bunching habit, so it can be placed in your sunniest window. Rotate the pot frequently to get sunlight to all the leaves, and it will produce plenty of sweet tasting fruit.
Citrus plants grow best in lime-free or ericaceous, John Innes compost with extra horticultural grit or perlite added to improve drainage, which is vital. Do not ever plant citrus deep, as they prefer to have their topmost roots exposed.
Plants will only need moving into a larger pot every few years, but will benefit from having the top few centimetres of compost scraped off each spring and replaced with fresh.
Water with tepid rainwater from a clean butt, drenching the compost then allowing it to almost dry out before watering again. Never allow plants to dry out completely, or they will drop leaves and flowers.
In a centrally heated home and during hot weather, stand the plant above a tray of wet pebbles to raise the humidity or mist the foliage regularly.
Citrus are greedy feeders and benefit from being sprayed with a high-nitrogen foliar feed during the growing season followed in autumn and winter with a more balanced feed. Specialist Citrus Fertilizers that include trace elements are readily available.
Plants can be stood outside on a sunny patio, when the risk of frost is past. Put the plant in part-shade initially, to allow the plant to acclimatize and then keep just the roots shaded, so that they don’t bake. Bring plants indoors again just before the frosts.
If your plant produces a heavy crop, then it’s best to pick off some fruits when they are still conker-sized, so that the remainder develop into larger fruits.
Selective pruning may also be necessary with the vigorous varieties, which quickly grow into trees with a naturally bushy habit, to curb excessive growth. Do this in late winter, pinching out the tips of vigorous growths and cutting back shoots to an active bud to shape the plant.
Scale insects and mealy bugs love citrus, so keep your eyes peeled for these and use a sponge dipped in soapy water to remove them. In hot weather keep an eye open for red spider mites too, which are particularly troublesome under glass when the air is dry – watering the floor around them and grouping plants will raise the humidity.
Boozy lemon liqueur
5 unwaxed lemons
1 lire bottle vodka
750g caster sugar
700 ml boiling water
Pare the zest from all the lemons taking care not to include any white pith. Put in a large sterilized Kilner jar and pour over the vodka. Secure the lid and leave for a week or so, in a cool place, shaking the jar daily.
Put the sugar and boiling water into a bowl, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Add the vodka mix and leave in a dark place for a week, shaking the jar regularly.
Strain the mix into decorative bottles and add a couple of strips of lemon peel then add a decorative label.
Lemon liqueur makes a great homemade gift
Lemon liqueur is best served chilled in shot glasses as a digestif after a meal and can be made into a refreshing hi-ball drink by adding sparkling lemonade and plenty of ice, or shaken into cocktails.
Once strained, the liqueur liquid can be kept in the freezer for at least a year, and likely much longer.
Any type of citrus fruit can be similarly used and will make a delicious pouring sauce for vanilla ice cream.
And there’s more…
Use lemons to make a spicy ginger tea that will help you stay hydrated and ease your throat during flu season.
Cut up a lemon or two and put in a pan of water to boil. As lemon is rich in vitamin C plus has an impressive list of other vital nutrients, the tea will help to keep the immune system strong and reduce any inflammation and swelling.
Add slices of ginger to the mix and you will soon sweat out the toxins in your body. Ginger is also helpful for settling upset stomachs, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and cold sweats.
Sweeten the tea with honey and it will soothe your sore throat. Honey also improves the body’s ability to fight infection and decreases the risk of developing a fever.
If you’ve ever played football for the school team, you might remember being given a piece of orange at half time. This is because oranges are loaded with vitamin C, which helps to boost energy and fuel stamina.
Oranges also have high water content and help to keep you hydrated…a glass of freshly sqeezed orange juice is one of the healthies beverages and helpful in beating stress.
A simple orange can with a few cloves be turned into a fragrant pomander ball that can be used to scent drawers and closets, or if attached to a ribbon, used as a Christmas tree decoration
Slices of citrus can be dried in an oven on the lowest setting and used to flavour teas
Dried citrus slices can be used to flavour and garnish water, cold or hot teas.
Dried mandarin orange can also be ground into a seasoning powder with a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle and used in marinades, sauces, cakes and biscuits. The fragrant powder can be stored in an airtight container and will last about a month in the refrigerator.
You can buy citrus trees in any season. Try The Citrus Centre at Pulborough, West Sussex (citrus centre.co.uk), Todd’s Botanics in Colchester (toddsbotanics.co.uk) or Kent’s Victoriana Nursery (victoriananursery.co.uk). Mail order seed suppliers Unwins and Thompson & Morgan also sell them.