If the main thing you know about limes is that they are sometimes used as a garnish for drinks or made up into a dessert commonly called “Key Lime Pie,” then you might be amazed to learn that there are many different varieties of lime tree and that not all of them occur naturally. “Key Limes” are actually Mexican limes, the variety frequently used in juices and deserts, but the Tahitian or Persian limes are hardier and can be grown in different conditions from the Mexican lime.
Origin of the Tahitian Lime
Tahitian or Persian limes, or the Citrus latifolia, are hybrids, believed to have developed from a cross of citron and the Mexican lime. Precisely how those limes all got together to cross pollinate isn’t quite known, but it is very possible that seeds or seedlings, or even rotten fruit was carried by sailors who commonly stocked limes as a means to make their water supplies taste better and to stave off scurvy. Scurvy is caused by a vitamin C deficiency and can be prevented by any diet that is rich in fresh fruit and vegetables. Long ocean voyages aren’t conducive to fresh supplies, however, especially when traveling on sailing ships. Limes kept well and could easily be added to drinks.
It is thought that the Persian limes were transported to Brazil by Portuguese sailors. Plants were ported to Australia around 1824, and to California around 1850. Growing conditions in California are excellent for the Mexican lime, so although the Tahitian lime would grow there, agriculturalists in that area continued to grow the Mexican limes.
Florida was a different story. With its wetter climate and occasional cold winters, the Mexican lime didn’t do quite as well. But the Tahitian lime, which can better withstand cool weather, did very well in Florida. Although it took a little while for the “green lemon” as Canadians called it to be accepted, it was found to be a viable plant in that area.
Climate, Soil and Rainfall: Growing Tahitian Limes
Tahitian Limes are often grafted onto other sorts of citrus rootstock, such as grapefruit. Therefore, when planting them the rootstock type needs to be taken into consideration. Tahitian limes can grow to be twenty feet tall, unlike their shorter cousin the Mexican lime which usually tops out around thirteen feet.
Lime trees, like many other citrus fruits, do not like to have wet feet. Conversely they do like a lot of water. This frequently means that growers need to plan for good drainage while still providing regular amounts of moisture. They are a semi-tropical plant, which is one reason why they do well in Florida. Since parts of Australia will provide a similar environment, there are excellent options for growing Tahitian limes there as well. In fact, several varieties of lime, including some wild ones, grow in Australia so the Tahitian lime fits in quite well.
Varieties of Tahitian Lime Trees
Since the Tahitian or Persian lime is already a triploid hybrid, variations are few. The Bearss lime was developed in Porterville, California by T.J.Bearss, a citrus grower. This strain was sold to and grown in Arizona, Hawaii and California until the late 1940s. At that time is was ruled that it was not a sufficiently distinctive cultivar to distinguish it from the basic stock.
The Idemor, was a sport discovered in a grove owned by G.L.Polk circa 1934. It is a distinctive variety, being smaller and more round than the Tahitian, and was patented in 1941. However, the strain was found to be highly susceptible to diseases and is no longer grown. A similar type is found in Morocco.
Pond was a budwood found in the Moanalua Gardens. This Honolulu variety was smaller, but otherwise very similar to the Tahitian. It has since disappeared.
USDA #1 and #2 are from seedlings grown at the USDA horticultural field station in Orlando, Florida. While not appreciably different from Tahitian Lime Trees, they are carefully bred to be free of the viruses xyloporosis and exocortis. They can be obtained through the Florida Budwood Registration Program.
Tahitian Limes are hardy, as tropical plants go, growing well into zone nine, and surviving temperatures that near freezing. With that said, they require careful cultivation, watering and fertilization.
If you have a sufficiently large indoor growing area, they can be dwarfed and grown in large pots or tubs if you live in an area where they would be frost killed out of doors. Skilled gardeners might even be able to get them to fruit. Even if they do not, they are an attractive indoor plant, having broad-lanceolate leaves that droop gracefully from the main stem.
The immature fruits are green. They turn yellow as they ripen. They have a milder flavor than the Mexican limes, but one that is still refreshing.
Harvesting and Preparing
Tahitian limes can be harvested all year around. Although they bloom and fruit more heavily during the summer months, they tend to fruit even through the winter months as long as the climate is mild.
They do not require any special preparation, and are ready to eat as soon as they are picked. Under refrigeration, they will keep six to eight weeks.
Tahitian limes can be used to make limeade or substituted for Mexican limes in any recipe that calls for lime. Although they have a milder flavor, they are still delicious and refreshing.