Lemons vs. Limes: What’s the Difference

Lime and Lemon Tree: What’s the Difference?

The Lime or Lemon Tree (Citrus limonum) is one of the most popular trees in South America. The tree grows up to 25 feet tall with a diameter of 2 to 3 feet. It produces large, round fruits which resemble small oranges but are not orange at all! They taste like sour grapefruit. These fruits have been used for centuries as medicine and food in many parts of the world.

The name “lime” comes from the Latin word limus meaning yellow. It was originally thought that these fruits were poisonous, however modern research shows that they contain no toxic substances whatsoever. Instead, it is due to their coloration that gives them their distinctive flavor. Lime is the common name given to citrus fruits with a bright red skin and white fleshy center. The term “lemon” refers to any fruit with a pale pinkish-white skin and dark colored fleshy centers.

Both the lime and lemon tree produce seeds, so there is a possibility that both species could hybridize. However, since the two species differ greatly in appearance and flavor, it would take several generations before such hybrids could develop into true varieties. There are three major types of citrus trees: those with red skins; those with green skins; and those with yellow skins. The latter type are called lemons because they have a pale pinkish-white skin and dark colored fleshy centers.

The three different types of trees do not “hybridize” with each other so it is possible to graft a lime tree to a lemon tree and get viable fruits that have both the flavor of a lemon and the appearance of a lime. This was actually common practice in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when citrus farming was still a lucrative industry.

The two most popular types of limes are the Bearss and the Persian. Both of these are green skinned limes with fairly thick skins. They have a very strong flavor and are perfect for cooking as well as adding to drinks.

The most popular type of lemon is the Eureka or Lisbon lemon. It is green when immature, but turns yellow when ripe. This lemon has a fairly thin skin and has a more complex flavor than the Bearss or Persian limes.

So what is the difference between a lemon and a lime?

Favored by chefs worldwide, the juice of the LIME is more tart than that of a lemon and provides the perfect accent to many foods.

The FRUIT is smaller than the lemon and rounder. The skin can range in color from green to yellow and sometimes even red. Limes have very small seeds in comparison to their size.

The TREE is smaller and has thorns on its branches. It flowers during the winter and produces fruit during the summer months.

The LIME has a more tart juice than that of a lemon.

Because limes have a thicker rind, more juice can be obtained by rolling the lime firmly between the hands before squeezing.

The most popular varieties are Bearss, Dancy, Lisbon and Mexican (key) limes.

The tree is more hardy than the lemon tree and can be grown outdoors in many areas of the U.S. The trees do best in well-drained, fertile soil. They grow to a height of about 10 feet and begin bearing fruit two to four years after planting. In the Northern states, the trees don’t often produce full crops.

A light frost does not damage the tree but heavy frosts often kill the flowers. The trees are generally heavy croppers but in the Northern states, they often produce light crops.

Washing or spraying the trees with a water hose helps to keep insects away. The trees should be sprayed with a solution of 1/2 cup bleach to 5 gallons of water. If you wish to use a mild soap rather than the bleach, use only a small amount-1/4 cup per 5 gallons of water. Don’t use harsh soaps because they may damage the foliage. This may be done anytime during the growing season.

Harvest limes when they are underripe and still green or when they are ripe and a yellowish color. Unripe limes can be kept in a cool place for several weeks but ripe limes should be used as soon as possible as they soon turn sour.

The LIME TREE is more tolerant of cold than the lemon tree. A minimum winter temperature of 10 to 15 degrees is required.

The LIME TREE is less tolerant of heat than the lemon tree. It requires plenty of moisture in the summer, especially when the temperature is between 90 and 100 degrees.

Pruning should be done to allow sunlight and air to reach the inner branches. New growth will be prolific. Pruning should be kept to a minimum as immature limes do not handle heavy pruning well.

The LIME TREE can be grown in containers relatively easily.

The tree is vulnerable to the citrus longhorned beetle.

At one time, the LIME TREE was in danger of becoming extinct. Now it is doing much better, although it still isn’t as common as the lemon tree.

The LIME TREE is not well-known in America but it plays an important part in history of Southeast Asia.

In some parts of the world, particularly Southeast Asia, the rind and juice are used as a meat tenderizer. It is also used to make a wine and as a flavoring in sorbets and other desserts. The rind is sometimes candied and the juice is sometimes substituted for lemon or vinegar in recipes.

In some cultures, the rind is chewed to alleviate dysentery, fever and diarrhea. In Malaysia, a poultice of limes is used to ease the pain of insect stings and scorpion bites.

The number of different LIME TREE varieties (Citrus aurantifolia) is only half that of lemons.

The most popular and widely-grown variety of the LIME TREE is the Tahitian lime (Citrus latifolia).

Lime flowers are sweet-scented and are mostly pollinated by bees.

Lime flowers are not used commercially but if allowed to mature, the flower develops into a small green fruit called a mabok.

Lime flowers can be eaten or used in recipes such as salads or desserts. They are quite sour.

The most popular way to use limes, however, is to eat them raw. They are an important ingredient in many culinary dishes.

They can be used to make an aromatic, spicy curry paste.

In Southeast Asia, the rind is candied and used as a dessert or served with tea.

In some areas of the world, the tree is grown for its wood rather than its fruit.

In some parts of the world, the leaves are used for thatching roofs and sometimes as a mosquito repellent.

Lime flowers are also an important ingredient in perfumes.

The tree is vulnerable to the Asian citrus psyllid and the green citrus aphid.

Lime trees are susceptible to a fungal disease called huanglongbing orHLB. It causes leaves to wilt, growth to slow and the production of fruits to cease entirely. In some cases, it can even kill the tree.

The disease is not harmful to humans and can be avoided by only using limes that are free of any blemishes or spots.

The disease has been spreading throughout the world. It is believed that the disease began in Asia but was inadvertently spread by humans to North Africa, the Caribbean and Central America.

Most varieties of limes that are grown commercially are only grown in tropical and subtropical regions where HLB has not yet spread. The disease has not reached some parts of Australia and South Africa due to the lack of Asian citrus psyllids in those areas.

The most popular variety of the LIME TREE, the Tahiti or true lime (Citrus latifolia), is not a hybrid and does survive in areas affected by HLB.

Tahitian limes are easier to grow from seed.

The tree needs a lot of sunlight to bear fruit and won’t grow well if it is rootbound or in a crowded location.

It is susceptible to a number of pests, diseases and environmental conditions.

It is more tolerant of cold than other limes but cannot tolerate frost. It prefers well-drained soil and does not do well in areas with excessive humidity.

It does best in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 10 and 11 but can also be grown in zones 8 and 9 and elsewhere with some protection.

In Australia, it prefers temperate areas but can be grown in the subtropical and tropical areas too.

The leaves from the tree can be used for herbal remedies.

Lime wood is not very strong but is aromatic and resistant to termites.

Today, most of the limes that are commercially grown are used for the juice and flavoring in food and drink.

Sources & references used in this article:

Oranges and lemons: clues to the taxonomy of Citrus from molecular markers by GA Moore – TRENDS in Genetics, 2001 – Elsevier

Sex differences in first-year algebra by JO Swafford – Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 1980 – JSTOR

The tristeza virus complex: It’s variability in field-grown citrus in South Africa by APD Mclean – South African Journal of Agricultural Science, 1963 – journals.co.za

The tristeza virus complex by AH Manville – 1883 – Ashmead Bros.

Vacuolar acidification in citrus fruit: comparison between acid lime (Citrus aurantifolia) and sweet lime (Citrus limmetioides) juice cells by APD McClean – International Organization of Citrus Virologists …, 1974 – escholarship.org

Assessing genetic diversity and population structure in a citrus germplasm collection utilizing simple sequence repeat markers (SSRs) by A Brune, M Müller, L Taiz, P Gonzalez… – Journal of the …, 2002 – journals.ashs.org