From Luxury to Ubiquity: The History of Lemons

This bright yellow citrus favorite has played many roles throughout human history.

by John Paap

It’s hot. I walk into my 1840s white colonial where I’m greeted with a welcome, yet brief, reprieve from the heat. A single air conditioner does little to cool me down. I move hastily to the refrigerator. I reach past the milk and grab the carton of fresh lemonade. I feel the coolness quickly spread as I first taste the sweetness, followed by a punch of sourness. Crisp and satisfying, I can feel myself cooling down all thanks to a small yellow piece of fruit, the lemon.

Lemons, like most citrus we enjoy today, are a hybrid — a cross between a citron and a sour orange. It is difficult to know exactly where lemons originated, although many have linked them to Southeast Asia, specifically northeast India. But the story of lemons really starts with one of its parents, the citron. Sometimes referred to as the “original lemon,” the citron, with its thick and bumpy yellow rind, became the first citrus crop to migrate westwards from its origin in the central Himalayan foothills. By the 5th century BC, the citron was in Persia and then likely found its way into Europe following Alexander the Great’s invasion of Persia in 325 BC. About 15 years later, in 310 BC, Greek philosopher Theophrastus pens the first written description of the citron, then referred to as the “Median” or “Persian apple,” in his book Enquiry into Plants.

Like most good things, it was only a matter of time before its popularity increased. By the 1st century AD the citron and early lemon had both found their way to Rome. Remnants of both fruits were found in fossilized pollen samples from this period and are featured in a mosaic from the end of the 1st century AD in the Roman Museum of the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome. However, for Romans, these were not just any fruit you picked up at the market. Citrons and lemons were status symbols. Due to their rarity and “exotic” origins in Persia, only the wealthy had access to these fragrant, yellow yet sour treasures. For those elite Romans that could get their hands on them, they were not eating them — or making refreshing beverages — rather they were using them for more practical and ornamental purposes. They would be used as a breath freshener, moth-repellent in clothing, for medicinal purposes in helping someone vomit up toxins, or simply just to put on display to flaunt a person’s wealth.

About a millennium later, in the 10th century, the Arabs took the lemon further west. In fact, it is the Arabs and Persians that called this fruit “laymun” from which the English word lemon is derived. The Arabs, whose empire spanned from the Iberian Peninsula to modern-day India, established advanced trade routes and agricultural practices, including sophisticated irrigation and cultivation techniques. Lemons, along with other citrus fruits such as limes and sour oranges, were being cultivated and distributed across the vast empire. The first written reference to lemons was made by Arab scholar Qustus al-Rumi in his 10th-century treatise on farming.

In the 15th century, as Europe exited the Middle Ages and entered the Renaissance, the citron and lemon were reintroduced through imports. Once again the citron and lemon became a desirable, rare icon of the elite class in Europe. Wealthy families, like the Medici in Florence, constructed elaborate gardens with the citron as their star plant. Even monarchs, like King Louis XIV, began cultivating lemons and citrons in their personal orangeries (early greenhouses). At the same time, lemons were making their debut in the Americas thanks to Spanish and Portuguese explorers who carried seeds with them on their voyages. By the 17th century, due to increased trade, lemons were becoming more affordable than ever and increasingly popular in England, France and America. The lemon was even starting to save lives.

In 1668 the bubonic plague returned to France. Thousands were dying in cities across Europe but Paris, miraculously, survived relatively unscathed. The lemon, in the form of a tasty beverage, appeared to be the key. While lemonade had been first recorded in Egypt in the 11th century (but then called qatarmizat), it was in the mid-17th century that this beverage took off across Europe, particularly in Paris.

Limonadiers, French vendors who sold lemonade from tanks on their backs, were spread throughout every corner of Paris serving this popular refreshment. With the lemonade fad came a lot of lemon peels. Peels were everywhere — in gutters, in the Seine, but perhaps most importantly in the trash. Lemon peels contain limonene, a natural ingredient that kills flea larvae and adult fleas, and is still used to this day in insect repellents. As rats nibbled away on the mountain of lemon peels, they were ingesting limonene and in turn killing fleas and their eggs. This in turn disrupted the spread of fleas from the rats to people, thus saving many Parisians from the plague.

The lemon was only getting started with saving lives. During the age of exploration, it is estimated that about 2 million European sailors died from scurvy, a disease caused by a serious vitamin C deficiency. That is more deaths than from battles and shipwrecks combined during the same period. In 1747, James Lind, a surgeon in the British Royal Navy, carried out one of the first controlled clinical trials recorded in medical science. Lind was testing a hypothesis that citrus could prevent scurvy. One of his treatments included sailors consuming two oranges and one lemon a day.

By the end of his trial, Lind found that those treated with citrus fruits were well enough to nurse others who hadn’t received citrus during the trial. At that time it was believed that the power of lemons lay in their acidity; it was later discovered that their true potency lies in their vitamin C content, a discovery made only in 1928. In 1789, it was mandated that lemon juice be given to every sailor serving throughout the Royal Navy. In honor of Lind’s achievements, a lemon tree now adorns the official crest of the Institute of Naval Medicine.

So there you have it. From being a status symbol to a life-saving food, to a ubiquitous produce item we find in our grocery stores today, the lemon has certainly played many roles throughout human history. Fortunately for us, today we can enjoy a lemon or lemonade simply for pleasure rather than to illustrate our wealth or stave off the plague.

• John Paap is the Sustainability and Brand Marketing Manager at Jac. Vandenberg, Inc. and co-host of the “History of Fresh Produce” series on The Produce Industry Podcast.