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A slice of sweet lime, dripping with juice. Photo courtesy Melissas.com.
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January 2008
Last Updated December 2010

Product Reviews / Main Nibbles / Fruits

Learn Your Limes In This Comprehensive Overview

Page 1: The Origin Of The Lime

 

This is Page 1 of a five-page article. Click on the black links below to visit other pages.

 

Introduction

A squeeze of lime has virtually no calories, and brings a delicious accent to foods and vegetables. Whether in soft drinks, cocktails (where would the caipirinha, gin and tonic, margarita, mojito, and tequila shot be without lime?) Key lime pie, made from the juice of the Key lime, is one of America’s favorite pies. The leaves of the kaffir lime are an important seasoning in Pacific Rim cuisine, as are dried limes in Persian cuisine. Limes are a popular ingredient in seafood and chicken dishes, desserts and marmalade. You can easily substitute limes for lemons in any dish.

Several of the more unusual varieties can be purchased as houseplants, and will yield fruit. For starters, Logeees.com has calmondin, kaffir, Key lime, limequat and Palestine sweet lime plants, as well as the traditional Tahitian or Persian lime.

History Of The Lime

We’ll limit the discussion to the two principal limes used in the U.S., the Persian or Tahitian lime, which is the principal supermarket lime, and the Key lime (Mexican lime).

Key Limes Or Mexican Limes

The Key lime originated in southern Asia Indo-Malayan region. It was unknown in Europe before the Crusades and it is assumed to have been carried to North Africa and the Near East by Arabs, across North Africa into Spain and Portugal. It was brought by Key LimeEuropean Crusaders from Palestine to the Mediterranean countries. In the mid-13th century, the lime was cultivated and well-known in Italy and probably also in France. It was taken to the Americas by Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the early part of the 16th century where it became naturalized in southern Florida, parts of the West Indies, Mexico and other Caribbean countries (it was reportedly commonly grown in Haiti in 1520). Hence, the name Key lime is from the Florida Keys. While there is no documentation of the date of entry to Florida, the tree was popular in yards of private homes. In 1839, cultivation of limes in southern Florida was reported to be “increasing.” By 1883 it was being grown commercially on a small scale in Orange and Lake Counties.* When pineapple cultivation was abandoned in the Florida Keys because of soil depletion and the 1906 hurricane, farmers began to plant the limes as a substitute crop there, as well as on the islands off Fort Myers on the west coast. The limes were pickled in saltwater and shipped to Boston, where they were a popular children’s snack. (Remember Amy in Little Women pining for some pickled limes?)  Photo by Scott Liddell |MorgueFile.

*Source: Purdue University.

The Key lime was our first lime, and in fact, was the first lime enjoyed by Europeans. The reason that the Tahitian/Persian lime became our regular lime, and the Key lime receded as a specialty fruit item, is threefold:

  • Tahitian limes are easier to cultivate—Key limes are more sensitive and their branches are very thorny and the limes are harder to pick.
  • Tahitian limes have thicker skins and are easier to transport and store.
  • Tahitian limes are less tart.

Tahitian Or Persian Limes

The origin of the Tahitian or Persian lime is unknown. It is presumed to be a hybrid of the Mexican lime and citron, an unusual citrus fruit whose main value lies in the fragrance and essential oil of its outer peel (the pulp is extremely dry and the thick white rind cannot be peeled). The basic lemon, Citrus × lemon, might also have been the co-parent. However, it was being grown in Tahiti.

It is believed that the Persian/Tahitian lime was introduced into the Mediterranean region by way of Persia (the modern Iran). Portuguese traders probably carried it to Brazil, and apparently arrived in Australia from Brazil about 1824. It reached California by way of Tahiti between 1850 and 1880 and had arrived in Florida by 1883, the same year that Key limes, which had arrived much earlier, were increasing in cultivation. In Florida, the Tahitian quickly took the place of the more sensitive Key lime.

Persian Lime
Photo of Persian lime by Missy Redboots | MorgueFile.

Following World War I, the Tahitian lime became a well-established commercial crop. Though it’s hard to believe today since the fruit is so universal, there was market resistance at first, buyers viewing it as a “green lemon.” For some time, Canadians would not accept it because they were accustomed to the more flavorful Key lime. But, it has endured, and many Americans today have never even seen, much less purchased, a Key lime.

Continue To Page 2: Varieties Of Lime ~ A To J

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