Home & Garden Columns

The Not-So-Sweet Life of the Lemon Tree

By Ron Sullivan Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 02, 2006

Lemon tree very pretty  

And the lemon flower is sweet, 

But the fruit of the poor lemon 

Is impossible to eat. 


It’s a slander of course, but I do remember Trini Lopez singing the song on the radio way back when. I remember hearing covers from Peter Paul and Mary and one of my schoolmates, too— catchy tune. At least it wasn’t “Banana Boat,” a song with a recurring “Deo” (or “Day-o”) upon which a pretentious or inebriated singer could get stuck for long minutes.  

Lemon trees like our climate just fine, which is fortunate because we like lemons just fine too, as a rule. Yes, there are a few on the streets, and there are more in yards and gardens. Aside from their nice fruit, they look handsome and atmospheric in Mediterranean-style settings, with adobe, stucco, or tiled surfaces. They’ll do fine in a big pot, too, and tolerate frequent pruning for size control. And their blooms do smell lovely, a great asset in a courtyard or small garden.  

One group of them that I know personally, because they live outside a veterinary clinic we frequent, get pruned rather cruelly into a forced tight shape and are barely recognizable as lemon trees. As a result of this and other hard bits of their lives, like their situation on a busy street and jammed into sidewalk wells, they seem prone to the diseases and disorders that can plague citrus trees here: infestations by scale insects, aphids and other bugs, black mold and mildew, and the ravages of snails. Snails will eat new leaves and even fruit and bark from lemons, enough to kill the trees sometimes.  

I have heard of citrus hedges, and seen a few, but they need good air circulation and attention—looking for bugs and mold and hosing down in summer to get rid of them—to thrive. 

Another problem those poor sidewalk trees have to cope with is the clay and sidewalk combo. They need good drainage, as do all citrus.  

We once moved into a flat in the Potter Creek drainage with an orange tree out back. I was ignorant enough about trees back then not to recognize that it was declining; it died within a few years and I felt guilty. We hung it with birdfeeders and windchimes, and one day decided to saw off a branch that had become snagged in a live and spreading eugenia next to it. It was rather a shock, like waking up to find yourself in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, when Joe sawed off the dead branch and braced to catch it, and instead the branch stayed suspended in the eugenia and the dead orange fell over.  

What we found at its base was a hole full of stinking water and a rotted-through stump. Mystery solved and no more guilt.  

One impediment to pruning, snagging snails, and even picking lemons is that the trees often sport big green thorns. In my experience, they don’t “heal” well from big pruning cuts, either, so if you have one it’s a good idea to set its shape early in its life and then control size by making smaller cuts frequently. Don’t shear it, though, unless you want an impenetrable thorny mass of blackened, puckered leaves in a year or two or you’re ready to give it the attention a hedge needs. 

If you’re planting a lemon for fruit, note the prices of Meyer lemons in the market and that that hybrid/cultivar is a prolific bearer here. It’s also cold-tolerant as lemons go, probably owing to its orange or mandarin parentage. (There are conflicting stories about which it is, and most writers on the subject just admit they don’t know.)  

You might want to put it where it’s protected from human poaching, too. A friend of mine swaps her Meyer lemons around to friends and other gardeners, and donates some to an elders’ food pantry. This year she can’t give her lemon tree as much attention as usual, and lately she’s found that someone’s been ripping off lemons, and in rather a careless fashion that damages the tree too. Human behavior can taste a lot more bitter than lemons.  


Photograph by: Ron Sullivan 

This beleaguered street tree manages to bear flowers and fruit: one lonely little lemon.