The Improved Meyer lemon tree proves that man can create a better version of a tree than Nature given enough time and impetus. Originally just an ornamental in its native China, Meyer lemons were discovered in that country in the early 1900’s by a US Department of Agriculture employee named Frank Meyer who brought trees to the States. The trees gradually became popular in backyards in the citrus growing areas of California; by the 1940s many families enjoyed this sweeter, less acidic version of the regular lemon. The rest of the country remained unaware of this most delicious of citrus fruits.
Regulations that Led to the Improved Meyer Lemon
Disaster in the form of a virus called Citrus trusteza struck the California citrus industry about mid-century. Although no Meyer lemon trees were grown commercially at that time, all those planted in backyards were found to be carriers of the virus. To protect the agricultural industry, new laws required the destruction of these Meyer lemon trees, and forbid the sale of new plants. These laws effectively halted the spread of this citrus species for many years. As late as 2005 Arizona law forbid importation and sale of these trees, long after California rescinded their law because the danger from the Meyer lemon was solved.
Unwilling to relinquish such a delightful fruit, Don Dillon of the California company Four Winds Growers developed a virus-free Meyer lemon in the 1950, but the plant was not certified and released to the public until 1975 by The University of California. This new variety, named the Improved Meyer Lemon, began its gradual rise in popularity. Homeowners bought the trees once more, but commercial growers also began the long push to acquaint the public with this fruit.
The Meyer Lemon
Undeniably among the most versatile of fruits, the ordinary lemon, the Improved Meyer lemon is a cross between either a common orange or a mandarin and a lemon. It can always be substituted for a lemon, but cooks gradually began to realize that the Improved Meyer lemon’s complex flavor could enhance recipes in new and different ways. After Alice Waters of the famous restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, published her book Chez Panisse Café Cookbook in 1999 with several recipes specifically requiring the new fruit, demand increased for Meyer lemons. Following this gourmet chef’s lead, food editors in popular magazines started publishing recipes naming the Meyer lemon as an essential ingredient. Those fortunate enough to taste Meyer lemons clamored for a reliable commercial source, and cooks across the country requested they appear in their local grocery stores.
Soft Skins and Availability
Growers began filling the increased demand for Meyer lemons as best they could. Unfortunately, these specialty fruits have soft skins that do not travel or save as well as regular lemons. Until growers can solve this problem, Improved Meyer lemons won’t appear outside urban areas during the brief season. In the meantime, homeowners in citrus-growing climates are busy planting their own reliable supply and collecting recipes that feature the sweet-sour flavor of the Improved Meyer lemon.
The improved Meyer Lemon was a boost for the popularity of the fruit because it became more readily available.