The few days of spring-like weather lured me to the local home improvement store in Pooler last week. I know it’s too early to plant, but I just like to look to see what’s new for the year. I was surprised, and delighted, to find a variety of citrus trees.
Georgia isn’t known for growing citrus. Typically our winters are too cold, but some new varieties are on the market that are much more cold tolerant. Franklin Farms in neighboring Statesboro actually has a Satsuma orange grove that is doing exceptionally well.
One of the most common citrus trees in our area is the Meyer lemon. While writing about the Centennial Celebration of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farms, I learned the Meyer lemon and Savannah have a common thread.
David Fairchild, a plant explorer, convinced Barbour Lathrop to purchase the grove of bamboo on U.S. 17 and deed it to the USDA for use as a plant exploration station. Fairchild hired plant explorers to search the globe for new types of plants that could be introduced into the United States. One of those explorers was Frank Meyer.
Meyer was born in Amsterdam and as was customary, he left school at the age of 14 and took a job at the Amsterdam Botanical Garden, where Director Hugo deVries, a botanist of worldwide reputation, quickly noticed his talents, taught him English and French and paid for his botany studies at the University of Gronigen. At the age of 26, Meyer immigrated to Washington, D.C., and worked as a gardener at the government greenhouses on the Mall. He wasn’t fond of the hot summers and decided to go west.
Meyer loved to roam about on foot and explore plants. He spent the next several years as a gardener. “I know quite a few people frown upon my roaming around," he wrote to a friend after he quit one job to explore Mexico. "I personally have learned more about the true nature of plants during this two-month trip than all the books and hothouses could have taught me in 10 years."
In 1905, on the recommendation of a mutual friend, Fairchild hired Meyer to explore plants in China. Meyer introduced several species of soybeans. On March 31, 1908, Meyer made the discovery of his lifetime as he was heading to Peking toward the end of his first expedition. He stopped briefly in the small village of Fengtai. In a doorway he noticed a small tree bearing about a dozen unusual fruits that looked like a cross between a lemon and an orange. The Villagers told him that the strange plant was valuable; rich Chinese paid as much as $10 for each tree because it produced fruit all year.
Meyer sliced a thin branch off the tree with his Bowie knife and packed it carefully in damp moss. Two months later, he delivered it to Fairchild, who labeled it Plant Introduction No. 23028 and sent it to the introduction garden in Chico, Calif., to see if it would grow and produce fruit in America. The rest is history.
I have a couple of friends who have Meyer lemon trees in their backyards, so they obviously do very well in our area. One of my staff members grows grapefruit in her backyard. I personally have had great success with a kumquat tree in my flower bed, so citrus obviously does grow in Georgia.
If you’re interested in growing citrus, now is the time to plant. They need the warmth of the spring and summer to get a good start. You’ll have to do some gardening sleuthing to figure out the best place to plant and how to take care of them in the cold weather, but you could be picking a Meyer lemon or some other Georgia-friendly citrus from your own tree this Christmas if you get started now.
My dear friend, Pat Hackney, a member of Friends of Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens, has had great success growing a Ponderosa lemon in a pot. My mother had a friend who grew these lemons and they are huge and full of juice. The average Ponderosa produces 1 cup of lemon juice.
Pat was kind enough to share her knowledge on Frank Meyer and a couple of her lemon recipes to help entice you into trying to grow your own citrus tree.
Teri Bell is co-owner of Miss Sophie’s Marketplace at the Mighty Eighth in Pooler. Go to sophiesmarketplace.com.
Lemon Upside-down Cake
Meyer or regular lemons work nicely for this cake.
• 4 tablespoons butter
• ¾ cup light brown sugar
• 3 small lemons
• 1 lemon to be sliced for wedges
• 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel/zest (set aside remaining lemon for another use)
• 6 tablespoons butter
• ¾ cup packed light brown sugar
• 1 ½ cups flour
• 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 3 teaspoons vanilla extract
• ¾ cup sugar
• 2 eggs
• ½ cup whole milk
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cut the 3 lemons into 1/8 inch-thick slices. Remove seeds and set aside. You will have about 30 lemon slices.
3. Grate 1 teaspoon lemon peel from lemon. Set aside the grated peel. Save the lemon for another use.
4. Heat 4 tablespoons butter in a 10-inch cast iron skillet. Brush sides of skillet with melted butter. Add the brown sugar, stir until it is moistened with the 4 tablespoons of butter and spread it into an even layer.
5. Arrange the lemon slices, slightly overlapping, to cover the bottom of the skillet. Set aside (see note).
6. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and set aside.
7. Using an electric mixer, cream the 6 tablespoons of butter and lemon zest and add sugar a little at a time to fully incorporate the sugar into the butter, until the mixture is a light pale yellow with a fluffy texture.
8. Beat in the eggs one at a time with mixer on low. Add vanilla to the milk and add half the milk mixture, beat until combined; the add half the flour mixture, combine; then add the remaining flour mixture alternately with milk until blended.
9. Spread the batter over the lemons in the skillet to cover evenly. Bake 30-35 minutes or until the cake is golden and the center tests done.
10. Remove cake from the oven to a cake rack and let stand 5 minutes. Run a thin knife around the edges of the skillet to loosen the sides.
11. Invert the cake on a platter and wait 2-3 minutes before lifting the skillet to let the syrup drip down onto the cake.
12. Carefully lift the skillet off of the cake. If any fruit sticks to the skillet, remove it and place it back on the cake.
13. Slice whole lemon into wedges with a very sharp knife. Serve warm with a dollop of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
Note: If a more candied lemon slice is desired, once the slices are added to the butter and brown sugar, you may increase the heat to medium, bring to a boil and cook for 2 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and rearrange the slices in the pan overlapping in a spoke fashion.
Cindy's Meyer Lemon Cups
Yield 4-8 servings.
• 1 cup sugar
• 4 tablespoons flour
• 1/8 teaspoon salt
• 2 tablespoons melted butter
• 7 tablespoons fresh Meyer lemon juice (takes about 2-3 lemons)
• Grated rind of 1 lemon
• 3 egg yolks, beaten
• 1 ½ cups milk
• 4 egg whites, stiffly beaten
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Blend sugar, flour and salt; add melted butter. Add lemon juice and rind and blend well. Add egg yolks and milk, stir well.
2. In separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff, fold into the lemon mixture.
3. Pour into 8 ungreased small custard cups or ramekins or 4 Le Creuset 12-ounce baking dishes.
4. Place the baking dishes in a 13-inch x 9-inch baking pan deep enough to hold about an inch of water. Fill the pan with hot water until halfway up the sides of the custard cups. Bake for 45 minutes. Each cup will have custard on the bottom with sponge cake on top.