The lemon is one of the most popular citrus fruits, but what is its real name? The common name “lemon” refers to the species Citrus limon. However, lemons have a complex taxonomic history involving hybrids between other citrus species. This article will explore the origins of the lemon and its scientific classification.
Botanical History of the Lemon
The lemon belongs to the Rutaceae family, which contains plants that produce rinds, piths, and oils. The genus Citrus includes common citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruits, limes, and lemons.
Botanists believe that the lemon originated as a hybrid between the citron (Citrus medica) and the sour orange (Citrus × aurantium). The citron is an ancient fruit native to Southeast Asia, while the sour orange developed through hybridization between the pomelo (Citrus maxima) and the mandarin orange (Citrus reticulata).
Lemons were first cultivated in the Mediterranean region around 200 A.D. but did not become widely grown until the 10th century. Early explorers and traders introduced lemons across the Middle East and into Europe. The lemon was brought to the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1493 during his second voyage.
Selective breeding over centuries has produced different lemon varieties tailored to different climates and uses. Major lemon types include the Lisbon, Eureka, Meyer, and Femminello St. Teresa.
Scientific Classification of the Lemon
Lemons have a complex taxonomic history. Here is the scientific classification:
Species: Citrus limon
The genus Citrus contains other closely related fruits including:
- Citrus medica – Citron
- Citrus × aurantium – Bitter orange
- Citrus × sinensis – Sweet orange
- Citrus × paradisi – Grapefruit
- Citrus × latifolia – Persian lime
Many citrus fruits can interbreed, making the taxonomy complex. Lemons are a hybrid of the citron and sour orange.
Common and Botanical Names
In common terminology, “lemon” refers to Citrus limon. However, in botanical literature, the lemon may also be referred to as:
- Citrus × limon – A hybrid between citron and sour orange
- Citrus limonia – Considered a variant name
- Citrus medica var. limon – Treated as a variety of citron
There is debate among taxonomists about which scientific name is most accurate for the lemon. The predominant view today is that Citrus × limon is the most appropriate name, indicating its hybrid origins.
Naming Varieties and Cultivars
There are many different varieties and cultivars of lemons that have been bred selectively for certain traits:
- Eureka – One of the most widely grown varieties, originating from California. Smooth yellow skin, few seeds.
- Lisbon – A popular variety with a high acid content, few seeds, and thick skin. Good for juicing.
- Meyer – Believed to be a cross between a lemon and an orange or mandarin. Thin rind, aromatic flavor.
- Femminello St. Teresa – Indigenous to Italy, this variety has an oval shape and acidic juice used for sorbetto.
These cultivars would all have the botanical name of Citrus × limon but are distinguished by their common variety names.
Other Fruits Called “Lemons”
Some unrelated fruits are also referred to as “lemons” due to similarities:
- New Zealand lemon – Citrus × aurantium, a hybrid between mandarin and pomelo
- Wild lemon – Various Australian rainforest species in the genus Citronella
- Meyer lemon – Thought to be a hybrid involving lemon, orange, and/or mandarin
- Volkamer lemon – Citrus × volkameriana, hybrid between Citrus medica and Citrus reticulate
These “lemons” belong to different Citrus hybrid groups than the common lemon. Their names reflect their resemblance to lemons in appearance, taste, or cultivation. But botanically they are distinct from Citrus × limon.
The common lemon corresponds to the species Citrus × limon. Its taxonomic status indicates hybrid origins between the citron and sour orange. Debate continues on whether to classify it as a distinct species or a variety of citron. Numerous cultivars exist within C. × limon like Lisbon and Eureka lemons. Other citrus fruits have “lemon” in their names due to similarities, but they are scientifically different from the common lemon.
|Lemon Type||Scientific Classification|
|Common lemon||Citrus × limon|
|Eureka lemon||Citrus × limon ‘Eureka’|
|Lisbon lemon||Citrus × limon ‘Lisbon’|
|Meyer lemon||Citrus × meyeri|
|New Zealand lemon||Citrus × aurantium|
|Volkamer lemon||Citrus × volkameriana|
Frequently Asked Questions
Where did lemons originally come from?
Lemons originated in Asia over 2000 years ago as a hybrid between the citron and sour orange. They were introduced into Europe around 200 AD and then spread to the Americas and the rest of the world.
Why are there different types of lemons?
Selective breeding and mutations have produced many different cultivars of lemons adapted to different climates and uses. Popular varieties include Lisbon, Eureka, and Meyer lemons. Unique varieties have developed regionally for juicing, cooking, or other properties.
What’s the difference between a lemon and a lime?
Lemons and limes both belong to the genus Citrus but are distinct species. Lemons (Citrus × limon) are larger, yellow, and more acidic and bitter than limes (Citrus × aurantiifolia), which are small, green, and more tart.
Are Meyer lemons true lemons?
Meyer lemons are thought to be a hybrid between a lemon and a mandarin orange or orange. While similar to lemons, they are likely a distinct Citrus hybrid. Their taxonomic status is still being studied.
Why do some unrelated fruits have “lemon” in their name?
Fruits like the New Zealand lemon and Volkamer lemon are named for their resemblance to true lemons in appearance, flavor, or use, even though they belong to different Citrus groups. The name reflects similarities, not taxonomy.
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Morton, J. (1987). Lemons. Fruits of warm climates, 160-168.
Scora, R. W. (1975). On the history and origin of Citrus. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, 369-375.
Tanaka, T. (1961). Citologia, 28: 65-74, 85-97. — Taxonomic discussion of polyembryonic and monoembryonic groups of Citrus and related genera.
Webber, H.J. 1967. The Citrus Industry. Vol. 1. History, World Distribution, Botany, and Varieties. Rev. Ed. University of California, Riverside.