Lemon trees are one of the most beautiful and widely popular trees in the world, especially in sunny regions such as the Mediterranean and North Africa. The aesthetic and functional, cooking value of lemon trees are only some of the reasons for its high demand. In Malta, for example, the lemon tree (siġra tal-lumi) is very popular in older, more traditional homes.
In the following article, we will give a general overview of lemon trees, and try to answer questions such as:
- Where do lemon trees grow best?
- Do lemon trees need a lot of sun?
- How do you take care of a lemon tree?
- How often should lemon trees be watered?
- How long do lemon trees live?
Lemon trees fall under the definition of citrus trees. Citrus is a genus of flowering trees and shrubs that produce citrus fruits, including oranges, lemons, grapefruits, pomelos, and limes.
In certain countries, such as Malta, lemon trees are known to have survived hundreds of years. A lemon tree can survive even up to 500 years. Whilst they cannot live thousands of years such as olive trees, they still carry lots of history and a long lifespan. This will normally depend on soil fertility, care and maintenance, including regular watering.
Years ago, lemon trees were grown mainly in gardens for their functional use. Having fresh lemons all year round was a luxury, at a time where transportation, shipping routes and refrigeration were less than ideal. Of course, nowadays, lemon trees in gardens are also used and grown for their aesthetic value. Gardening enthusiasts all agree that lemon trees can give a positive boost to any garden.
Lemon is known to have many different uses. These include cooking and drinks (limoncello), although research has shown that lemons can also have a very positive effect on one’s health too. Lemons may support heart health and weight control. One lemon provides about 31 mg of vitamin C, which is 51% of the reference daily intake (RDI), whilst research shows that eating fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C reduces your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Mediterranean countries, such as Malta and Sicily, Italy, have the advantage of having fresh lemons available. When consumed, fresh lemons will always have a better taste and a more fragrant aroma, especially when compared to lemons that have been imported from other countries and that have spent many days closed in refrigeration.
Climate, soil and watering
The Mediterranean climate is often considered the perfect climate for lemon trees. The sun, heat and fertile soil make the Mediterranean an ideal location. Some of the European countries that are well known for lemon tree production include Malta, Italy, Sicily, Spain, Greece, but also including Libya in North Africa.
Northern countries or countries with colder climates, snow, and temperatures below zero find it more difficult to grow citrus and lemon trees. Lemon trees in colder countries would normally be miniature types in pots, stored in a greenhouse or a climate-controlled environment. The general life span of smaller lemon trees in colder countries tends to be four to five years.
Lemon trees, and citrus trees in general, need very fertile soil, lots of sun and regular watering. Certain countries with easy access to water will water lemon trees even during rainy seasons, to ensure the lemon tree has enough water for its growing needs.
Water and drip irrigation systems are highly suggested as they can provide constant and regular watering. Constant delivery of water throughout the year will also ensure that the fruit is not damaged by sudden, large volumes of water after a long, dry period. The soil under the tree and its roots need to have moist conditions, enabling the leaves to have a green colour and their natural shape. A thirsty or nutrient deficient tree will show signs through its leaves, for example by drying them out. Naturally, the happier the tree, the more high-quality fruit it will produce.
When planning a particular garden, trees and their location must be planned properly, to maximise access to water, exposure to sunlight all around and enough space between different trees. In areas without space problems, lemon trees can also be grown four to five metres away from each other. This space, along with proper pruning, allows for air circulation, which improves the quality of fruiting.
The location requirements can vary across different countries, and sometimes even within the same country. For example, in Malta, citrus fruit normally matures from December to January, with harvesting in February. In Libya, as it is further south than Malta, the fruit matures from October to November. In Sicily, Italy, citrus fruit matures from March to April. This changes the further north one goes, and a full day’s sun can mature fruit quicker than half day’s sun.
Lemon trees can grow lemon fruit four times a year, once in each season. In Malta, sometimes these lemon trees are known as “lumija ta’ kull qamar” (lemon for every moon) or “lumija ta kull staġun” (lemon for every season). This is to reflect the lemon tree’s ability to produce lemon fruit throughout the year.
Blooming flowers are pollinated through bees, after which the flower becomes a small lemon. Once the lemon fruit is of the required size, the lemon tree would already be preparing small lemons for the second batch of lemons. It is therefore common to have lemons of different sizes on the same tree at the same time.
Lemon trees are in constant need of nutrients, and regular feeding and watering are very important for a healthy tree. In locations with man-made soil, however, one must be more careful. This soil can still be fertile, but one must be careful of soil with high salt levels. In dry countries, such as Malta, lack of rainwater and soil high in salt levels can require a gardener to avoid providing fertiliser, which may have salts. The less water available to the soil, the higher the salt levels. When the soil experiences regular watering or rainfall, then some of that salt is washed out, regularising again the salt levels within the soil.
In Malta, September, October, November, and December rainfall has a particularly important role to play in gardening and farming. A lack of rainfall in these months can therefore have a devastating effect on trees, especially in areas with difficulty in accessing water. Controlled farms or gardens might have constant water throughout the year, but trees growing in more natural habitats do not have this luxury.
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