So, where does the lemon come from?
It’s an ancient fruit, yet it is also a hybrid. Botanists calculate that citrus probably originated more than 20 million years ago, and that only three types of citrus –citron, mandarin and pummelo—are naturally occurring species. All the rest are hybrids.
The lemon’s most direct ancestor is the citron.
The citron’s origins are mysterious, but it probably began as a wild species in Northern India. A Hindu religious text from before 800 B.C. is the earliest written reference to it, and it was the first citrus to be cultivated in Europe.
Perhaps because of its divine scent, the citron has always been associated with the spiritual and the sacred.
In antiquity, Jews adopted the citron, or esrog, as an essential symbol of their religious practice during Sukkos, the harvest festival.
So the Jews, who required fresh citrons to fulfill the Biblical commandment of the holiday, became citron farmers. And after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, exiled Jews dispersed through the Roman Empire, planting some of the world’s earliest citrus orchards around the Mediterranean.
Today citrons for Jewish observance during the fall festival of Sukkos are grown to exacting standards. The fruit must be grown from trees that are not grafted, and an acceptable esrog may have no blemishes.
Most of the citrons for ritual use are grown in Israel, but some are also grown in Italy, the Greek islands, Morocco, Yemen–and California. You can learn more about the varieties, or order an esrog, from Zaide Reuven’s Esrog Farm.
Traditionally, after the holiday, the citron (or esrog) was given to the women and was said to aid fertility and childbirth. My grandmother soaked the citron peel for days to decrease its bitterness and made it into a golden marmalade, which she gave to postpartum mothers to help them recover their strength.
Here’s an article I wrote about citrons and citron growing for Reform Judaism Magazine.
Buddhists embraced the Buddha’s Hand Citron–so named because when the fingers press together, it resembles a hand in prayer–after this variety reached China in the fourth century.
In China and Japan, Buddha’s Hand Citrons are cherished as religious offerings for household or temple altars.
Their scent is said to evoke happiness.