LEMON (Citrus limon – Rutaceae)

The lemon tree (Citrus limon) is a relatively small member of the Citrus family, reaching up to 5 m (16 ft) in height. Like most of its relatives, it originated in South-East Asia, in India, China and Japan, but is now grown extensively in hot countries around the Mediterranean, in Spain, southern Italy, Sicily, and the south of France. Lemons are also grown in California. They are the least hardy of the citrus trees. Although small, an individual tree can produce up to 1,500 fruit per year. The white flowers have the most exquisite perfume.

The fruit is thought by some not to have reached Europe until the Middle Ages, but it was known to the Greeks and Romans, if rare. Virgil wrote of it as the Median apple, because lemons came from Media near Persia. The ancients used the peel to perfume clothes and act as a pesticide. A well-known Roman agronomist, Palladius, started cultivating lemons on a large scale in the fourth century. Lemon trees were planted in the Sahara by Arab invaders in the eighth and ninth centuries; the Moors introduced them to Andalusia in southern Spain during their eight centuries of occupation.

The therapeutic values of lemon began slowly to be recognized. Nicolas Lemery in his book on simple drugs in 1698 mentioned them. They were classified as digestive (helping flatulence), as a blood cleanser, and as helping sweeten the breath after a heavy meal. They reached the height of their therapeutic fame when they were issued to counteract the effects of scurvy on the British Navy (resulting in the erroneous nickname of ‘limey’).
With oranges, lemons are the most important citrus fruit. Linnaeus thought the lemon was a variety of citron (the earliest citrus fruit to reach Europe) and classified it as Citrus medica var. limonum; but it has now achieved its own classification as C. limon. Essence of lemon is second only to orange in its world production and use. There are a great number of tree varieties cultivated for their essential oils, and each oil is different, depending on provenance, culture, climate and method of extraction. The annual world production of lemon oil is 2,000-2,500 tonnes (1987 figures). The principal producers are the USA, Argentina, Italy, Sicily, the Ivory Coast, and Brazil. Australia is beginning now to cultivate lemons. Western Europe is the most important market for the oil, importing some 750 tonnes per year.


Description: Like bergamot, lemon oil is obtained from the oily rind of the fruit. This is pressed from the skin by sponges; the oil gathers in the sponge and is then squeezed out. Although slow, this old fashioned method produces an oil of a better quality than that obtained by more modern methods. The oil is pale yellow, sometimes even green, with a nice fresh smell.

The principal constituents: Limonene (up to 90 per cent) and citral (3-5 per cent); others are coumarines (bergamotine and limettine), and flavones (diosmine and limotricine).
Dangers: Like most citrus oils, lemon essential oil does not keep well, and if left open or in the light, can quickly become cloudy and pale with a disagreeable smell. When buying, check the date mark very carefully, and do not buy if it is cloudy. Certainly never use an old oil on your skin as it could cause terrible allergic reaction ¬and it won’t have any therapeutic value anyway. Lemon oil is restricted by IFRA and causes dermatitis if there is exposure to sunlight after use.


In illness
A remedy for eye infections that has long been used in my own family for as far back as I can remember involves putting several drops of pure lemon juice in the eyes five or six times a day. I still use it myself when I have an eye infection. I must warn you, however, that it is extremely painful, with a burning sensation that persists; the eyes do calm down after a while, and they feel much better. A drop in each eye is sufficient a few times a day.

Lemon essential oil is called ‘polyvalent’ (cure-all) by French phytotherapists, who classify it as being a tonic, stimulant, stomachic, carminative, diuretic, antiseptic, bactericidal and antiviral. It was still being used as an antiseptic and disinfectant in hospitals up to the First World War.

Lemon is very useful for all vein problems, varicose or broken capillaries. Either eat a lemon per day, or drink the juice of one mixed with mineral water and 5 ml (1 tsp) honey twice a day, hot or cold.

Lemons also help the symptoms of PMT and insomnia. Every day for the seven days leading up to a period, drink a hot, freshly squeezed lemon drink last thing at night and first thing in the morning. For period pain massage an oil made from 20 ml (4- tsp) almond oil and 8 drops lemon oil on the stomach clockwise.

Lemon is a well-known and popular remedy for colds, bronchitis and laryngitis: like its citrus relatives, it contains vitamin C. Drink a few hot lemon drinks throughout the day, and for a sore throat, gargle with pure lemon juice in a little hot water.
(See also catarrh, chilblains, fatigue, melanosis and oedema.)

In beauty
Lemon juice is used a lot in various beauty preparations – pure lemon juice makes a simple pore-refining toner: use on a greasy skin or on blackheads. It makes a good rinse for fair hair and it can help psoriasis and dandruff. For dark or hard-skinned elbows stand each elbow in half a lemon.

I have found lemon most effective for its rejuvenating properties. Mix some pure lemon juice with some distilled or mineral water, and massage gently on to wrinkles until dry, especially around the mouth and eye areas. This is also good for stomach skin during pregnancy, for the breasts and for the nipples, improving circulation.

Lemon beauty mask
Mix together beaten white of an egg and the juice of a half lemon. Apply on the face and neck, leave for 10 minutes, then remove with min¬eral water. Finish off with a few drops of the oil given opposite for PMT

Lemon hand cleanser
Pure lemon juice is a wonderful hand cleanser. After preparing veg¬etables or when hands are stained or smelly, rub them well with a half lemon. Rinse in cold water, then rub in some almond oil. I can guarantee that your hands will be clean, and remain young-looking, with white healthy nails; better than any expensive hand cream. (The juice also acts as a bactericide, very important in the kitchen when preparing food.)

(See also ageing skin, cellulite and circulatory problems.)

In cookery
Lemon is one of the most important citrus fruits, but an anomaly exists in that it is the only major food not eaten complete, by itself – it is parts of it, the peel and the juice, which are used. Lemon juice is the most common souring agent in Western cooking, and slices appear in a variety of drinks from tea to gin and tonic, and as ubiquitous garnishes. Lemon juice is used to acidulate water to prevent cut or bruised fruit or vegetables turning brown. It is used in salad dressings instead of vinegar and in meat and poultry marinades where it has a tenderizing effect. Lemons are used in many pickles, primarily by the Indians who preserve young fruit in mustard oil and spices, and the Moroccans who salt-preserve small, thin-skinned lemons and tart bergamot lemons in their famous Citrons Confits.

Other uses
Lemon essential oil is used in enormous amounts in commercial drinks and beverages – in sodas, lemonades and squashes. It is also used in the food, perfumery and pharmaceutical industries. Certain of these industries prefer deterpened essential oil (that is, with the terpene removed) as it is more concentrated: high in aldehydes, it has more aroma and keeps better.

Dried lemon peel can be used in pot-pourris, and lemons can be studded with cloves (like oranges) for a sweet-smelling pomander.

A to Z of Plants