an aromatic fruit widely used in the cuisine of many countries
This small, green citrus fruit is a staple of Asian cuisine and is used mainly for its juice, although lime zest and leaves are also used in cooking.
It has a stronger, more bitter taste than lemon. The juice can be sprinkled over finished dishes to enhance their flavour. It effectively ‘cooks’ raw fish in ceviche. Key Lime pie is a famous dessert from Florida traditionally made with a special variety of limes called Key Limes. Limes are also an essential part of the perfect margarita.
Limes are a significant crop in India, Mexico, Egypt, the West Indies, the tropical Americas and the Pacific Islands. In New Zealand, they’re primarily grown in the East Cape area around Gisborne.
The lime tree is more sensitive than the lemon tree. It’s frost tender and thrives in a warm, moist climate. In cooler climates you could plant a lime tree in a container, as long as you can bring the whole tree indoors during the winter. A very sunny indoor room should be sufficient but the tree should be put back outdoors during the warmer months.
For a container, you’ll need at least a half barrel-sized pot or planter. Dwarf varieties of lime will do best in a container, which usually means a standard lime that’s been grafted onto a different rootstock to keep it small. If you can’t get a dwarf lime, you may be fine with a standard tree since they’re fairly small to begin with.
There are three main varieties: Bearss (or Tahitian), Mexican (or Key) and Kaffir (or Thai).
The Mexican or Key lime is smaller and seedier than the Tahitian lime and has higher acidity and a stronger aroma, as well as a thinner rind. The Tahitian lime has almost no seeds and is slightly sweeter in flavour.
The Mexican lime tree has thorns and is native to Southeast Asia. It made its way to the Americas and the Florida Keys, where the famous Key Lime pie originates from. Most of the commercial crop in New Zealand are Tahitian limes.
The leaves from the Kaffir lime tree are actually edible and are often used in Asian and Thai cooking.
Lime trees seldom grow more than 5m high and if not pruned become shrublike.
Its branches spread and are irregular, with short, stiff twigs, small leaves, and many small, sharp thorns.
Tahiti lime trees resemble lemon trees and are larger and more vigorous than the Mexican, with larger and darker coloured leaves. The fruit is larger and more elongated than the Mexican lime, the peel is thicker, and the fruit is nearly seedless.
Most lime varieties are self-fertile, meaning you only need one tree in order to get a successful fruit harvest.
Choose a sunny spot in the garden for your lime tree. Planting during late autumn will give your tree some time to put down roots before the hot dry summer climate.
Make sure the drainage is excellent. If planting in the ground, the soil around the tree will need to be a little higher than the ground outside the planting hole to prevent pooling of water.
Water consistently. Lime trees will drop their leaves if left dry for too long.
Fertilise frequently as lime trees are heavy feeders. They’ll quickly deplete the soil around them, in the ground or in a container. Be sure to fertilise every few months with an animal manure and Natures Organic Fertiliser. See here for how to plant a citrus tree.
The lime season in New Zealand is from March to September. Lime trees will start to fruit at 3 years old, but there will only be a handful at first.
Unlike most other citrus fruits, limes are picked before they ripen to get the best flavour. Green limes do turn yellow if left on the tree, so you want to pick the fruit before that happens. Once ripe, it will be bitter.
Unfortunately, it can be tricky to know the right point to pick your fruit because any that are too immature will be poor as well. Fruit that’s ready to be harvested should be juicy, and the skins will be lighter green than the younger fruit.
You can store whole limes in the fridge for about 2 weeks if you put them in a plastic bag. If you just want the juice for drinks and cooking, that can be frozen and stored for several months. Ice cube trays work very well, then you can just store the loose cubes in freezer bags.