Growing Citrus Indoors

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~ Citrus ~

Growing Citrus Indoors excerpted from Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities!

We would grow citrus, whether they bore fruit or not, for the lilting sweet scents of the blossoms alone. Whether entering a room in which a citrus is in bloom or approaching the plant on the terrace, one cannot help appreciating their exquisite fragrance.

During the Baroque period, orange and citrus fruits became equated with the golden apples from the mythical Garden of Hesperides. In 1664 Louis XIV of France commissioned the architect LeVall to build the first orangerie at Versailles. It was the Sun King’s love for gardens, and in particular his admiration for the “Seville” orange, which brought both citrus plants and the conservatory into prominence. The orangerie protected exotic and tender plants during the winter, and when the plants were moved out of doors during the warmer months, the orangerie was transformed into a setting for courtly events and celebrations.

The genus Citrus is indigenous to southeast Asia, occurring from northern India to China and south through Malaya, the Philippines, and the East Indies. The earliest records of its cultivation date back to about 500 b.c. The four original wild species from which all domesticated fruits are thought to have been hybridized are Citrus medica, Citrus aurantifolia, Citrus grandis, and Citrus reticulata.

The calamondin orange (Citrus mitis), with heavenly scented, pure white flowers, is among the easiest to grow. Although the fruit is too acidic to eat out of hand, it is fine for cooking, seasoning poultry prior to roasting, or combining with honey to make a piquant glaze. The key lime (Citrus aurantifolia), has an insinuating sweet and fresh fragrance and is used for preserves, garnishes, and juice. Oil of citral is extracted from Citrus aurantifolia for use in perfumes. Highly valued in Japan and China for use in Buddhist ceremonies, the Buddha’s Hand (Citrus medica) is a thorny shrub with fragrant fruits that resemble a human hand. The flowers are comparatively large (3–4 inches across), white shaded purple, and intoxicatingly fragrant.

One of the most beautiful and widely available citrus for pot culture is the Meyer lemon (Citrus limon x Citrus sinensis), also known as the Chinese lemon. It grows to a manageable size, less than two feet, and in a standard shape with a nicely rounded-head form. Not a true lemon, but a hybrid cross of C. sinensis, an orange, and C. limon, its fruit is sweeter than that of a pure lemon cultivar. But it is for the flowers that I grow the Meyer lemon. The blossoms are thick and velvety, creamy white tinted rose. Blooming in notes of honeysuckle and jonquil-like fragrances, the tree flowers prodigally.

Citrus thrive in a well-draining soil similar to what is an ideal medium for cactus. They must be grown in clay pots to insure good air circulation. The surest way to kill a citrus is by overwatering. Wait until the soil is thoroughly dried between watering. Place your finger a full three inches into the soil and water only when it feels dry at your finger tips, and then water deeply until a bit of water comes out the bottom of the drainage hole. With regular feedings of fish fertilizer throughout the summer and an all-purpose fertilizer during the winter months (when we find the odor of fish fertilizer to be repugnant indoors), citrus plants grow strong and healthy and are less likely to succumb to insect infestations.

Citrus plants are fairly indestructible, although they will quickly let you know when they’re unhappy. A few leaves will yellow and fall off, and if the problem is not resolved immediately, the entire plant will defoliate. This is typically due to overwatering and/or a soil mixture that does not allow for excellent drainage. Do not be discouraged, even if the entire plant becomes leafless. Water less frequently and try repotting the plant in a more suitable growing medium. Usually, they can be revived.

When grown indoors, citrus are occasionally bothered by spider mites and scale. Spider mites are easy to detect because they make a visible white web. Scale is a more challenging problem to diagnose as the light brown, pinhead sized and hard-bodied pest is difficult to see. They remain well hidden, where they attach themselves to the stems and along the ribs on the underside of the leaves. Scales produce a sticky substance that coats the leaves. For both pests, spray with a solution of diluted rubbing alcohol (three parts water to one part rubbing alcohol) to keep them in check.

Considered a harbinger of prosperity and good fortune, citrus have been grown in Chinese gardens and courtyards for thousands of years. We can take a lesson from how seasonal changes are reflected in a Chinese garden. Different areas of the garden are used in rotation for social events, depending on the prominence of a particular tree or shrub in flower, and flowering plants growing in pots are brought into the current living areas. After blooming, they are moved to a less visible location, and the focus shifts to flowers that are coming into florescence.

Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! written and illustrated by Kim Smith (David R. Godine, Publisher)

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