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The principal species of lime are Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia) and Persian lime (Citrus latifolia). Of the two, Key lime is the more widely cultivated. Key lime is known as Mexican lime and West Indian lime. In Spanish, the Key lime is lima acida, in French limette or limettier acide, in Italian limetta, in German limett, and in Dutch lemmetja or limmetje. In East Africa, Key lime is known as ndima, in the Philippines dalayap or dayap, in Malaysia limau asam, in India nimbu, in the Netherlands Antilles lamoantiji, in Brazil limao galago or lintao miudo, in Egypt and Sudan limun baladior or baladi, and in Morocco doc. The Persian lime is known as the Tahiti lime. Lime is used to flavor other foods and beverages and as a folk remedy. One hundred grams of lime contain 88.7 to 93.5 grams of water, 0.07 to 0.11 gram of protein, 0.04 to 0.17 gram of fat, 0.1 to 0.5 gram of fiber, 4.5 to 33.3 milligrams of calcium, 9.3 to 21 milligrams of phosphorus, 0.19 to 0.33 milligram of iron, 0.003 to 0.04 milligram of beta carotene, 0.019 to 0.068 milligram of thiamine, 0.011 to 0.023 milligram of riboflavin, 0.14 to 0.25 milligram of niacin, and 30 to 48.7 milligrams of vitamin C. As a source of vitamin C, lime may have saved the lives of innumerable sailors. So closely was the lime associated with British sailors that they were known as limeys. There is doubt that the limes that the British purchased from Portugal were especially high in vitamin C.

Lime (Tom Schmucker/

Origin and History

The Key lime may be native to India or the Malay Archipelago. If so, the names Key lime, Mexican lime, and West Indian lime are all misnomers. In antiquity, the Arabs took the Key lime to the Near East, North Africa and Egypt, Iran, and Palestine. In the Middle Ages, Crusaders brought the Key lime from the Levant to the rest of the Mediterranean Basin. By the mid-13th century, Italy and France cultivated the Key lime, though because it does not tolerate frost it must have been grown in the southern portions of these countries. In the early 16th century, the Spanish introduced the Key lime to Mexico and the Caribbean, where the species likely acquired the monikers Mexican lime and West Indian lime. By 1520, the tree was widespread on the island of Hispaniola (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic).

Although scholars are not sure when and from where, the Key lime was imported to Florida. One thesis holds that the Spanish introduced the Key lime to Florida about 1565. In 1839, one report noted that cultivation of the Key lime was widespread in South Florida. By the 1880s, Floridians grew the Key lime for their own use, with commercial acreage in Orange and Lake Counties. Dissatisfied with the pineapple’s tendency to exhaust the soil, and upset that a hurricane had destroyed pineapple groves in 1906, farmers in the Florida Keys turned to the Key lime. The association with the Florida Keys doubtless gave the Key lime its name. Elsewhere in Florida, farmers planted the Key lime on islands off the western coast of Fort Myers. Florida exported Key limes to Boston, whose children ate them as a snack. Key lime culture expanded in Florida between 1913 and 1923, but a hurricane in 1926 arrested this progress. By the 1950s, George D. Fleming Jr., owner of Key Lime Associates of Key Largo, emerged as Florida’s chief grower of Key limes. That decade the Upper Florida Keys Chamber of Commerce encouraged Floridians to plant Key lime trees. Outside Florida, California emerged in the 19th century as a lime producer. A bulletin in 1885 did not mention the Key lime by name, but its description of the limes grown in California supports the inference that the Key lime was the species under cultivation. California growers apparently had little experience growing the Key lime, and many of the early plantings succumbed to frost. A large grove at 1,800 feet in Sierra Madre Villa marked the apex of what was otherwise an unsuccessful venture. Cheap Key limes from Mexico drove California’s produce from the market. Some Californians grew the Key lime tree as an ornamental, pruning it to the size of a hedge. Outside the United States, India, Egypt, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the tropics of Asia and Africa amassed large acreages of Key lime. Colima, Mexico, alone boasts 2 million trees. The Himalayas grow the Key lime to 4,000 feet. In 1930, Key lime trees were planted on the Pacific island of Niue. In 1979, a hurricane nearly extinguished lime culture on Niue.

The Persian lime may be a hybrid between the Key lime and the citron or lemon, though its scientific name does not denote its status as a hybrid. As its name suggests, the Persian lime is likely indigenous to Iran, from where it spread to the Mediterranean. The Portuguese found the Persian lime on the Tunisian island of Djerba and carried it to Brazil and from Brazil to Australia, the latter migration complete by 1824. On the island of Tahiti, the Persian lime acquired the name Tahiti lime. From Tahiti, the Persian lime was introduced to California between 1850 and 1880 and to Florida by 1883. Although the Persian lime is more cold tolerant than the Key lime, it is doubtful that it was grown in Lake Placid, New York, in 1897. In Florida, the Persian lime competed with and to some extent displaced the Key lime. The popularity of the Persian lime led Florida growers to abandon the lemon for it. Markets for the Persian lime developed after World War I, though Canadians preferred to import the more flavorful Key lime. In the 1930s, Florida citrus growers planted the Persian lime for extra income. After 1949, the use of the Persian lime to make limeade concentrate opened a new niche for the species. By 1954, Floridians planted 1,000 acres to Persian lime. Between 1970 and 1980, the yield of Persian lime increased 60 percent, and by 1979 the Persian crop totaled $9 million, with 1 million bushels sold fresh and another 1 million processed. By 1980, Florida tallied 8,000 acres to Persian lime. In 1985, farmers in Dade County grew Persian lime on 6,500 acres, exporting 110 million pounds of fresh fruit worth $14 million. Today, Florida produces 90 percent of all Persian limes in the United States. In 2007, India was the world’s leading producer of limes with 2.2 million tons (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Mexico ranked second with 2.1 million tons, Argentina third with 1.4 million tons, Brazil fourth with 1.2 million tons, and Spain fifth with 968,000 tons. The United States ranked seventh with 794,000 tons.


Known for its tartness, a lime may be sourer than a lemon. The Key lime tree reaches between 6.5 and 13 feet in height. Fragrant, the leaves are purple when young and dark green when mature. Two inches in diameter, a flower has four to six petals. The petals are white with purple streaks. Flowers may or may not be fragrant. Each flower has 20 to 25 white stamens, which house yellow anthers. A tree may bear fruit singly or in clusters like the grapefruit tree. The fruit of a Key lime tree is green when immature and light yellow when ripe. The pulp, organized in 6 to 15 segments, may be green or yellow. Some Key limes are nearly seedless. Others have a large number of seeds.

The Key lime tree prefers a warm, wet climate, with 80 to 150 inches of rain per year. Curiously, given its appetite for water, the Key lime is the most drought tolerant of citrus trees. In fact, too much rain leaves Key lime trees vulnerable to fungal diseases. Key lime trees grow well on the limestone soil of the Florida Keys and Niue. Trees will grow on sandy soil in Florida with the addition of calcium carbonate (lime) to increase the soil pH. Hawaiian farmers grow the Key lime on well-drained sand or gravel. Clay is unsuitable for the Key lime. Unlike many other citrus trees, which are propagated vegetatively, the Key lime may be propagated by seeds. When it is grafted, lemon or sour orange is the rootstock. Hawaiian growers use pummelo as the rootstock. Key lime trees are planted 25 feet apart at a density of 70 trees per acre. Key lime trees are sometimes interplanted with legumes to enrich the soil with nitrogen. Dade County, Florida, farmers use 2-8-10 or 2-10-10 fertilizer in a ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus to potassium. On Niue, farmers apply zinc sulfate to the soil at the time of planting, thereafter fertilizing the soil with nitrogen and potassium.

A young tree bears fruit in 3 to 6 years with a heavy yield in 8 to 10 years. The Key lime is a small fruit, being one-third to one-half the size of a lemon. Fruit ripens five to six months after a tree flowers. In the Florida Keys, the harvest is year-round, though the heaviest yields are in May and June and in November and December. On Niue, farmers harvest Key limes in April and May. Fruit destined for the fresh market should be picked when light green, smooth, and slightly soft. Fruit destined for processing should be harvested when yellow and fully ripe. Some growers allow fruit to fall to the ground, where it is harvested. Fruit may be stored two to three weeks at 48.2°F with 85-90 percent humidity. Refrigeration at 44°F may damage fruit.

In addition to the Key lime, growers may plant varieties of this species. Everglade, a hybrid between the Key lime and grapefruit or pummelo, little resembles the latter parent. In 1922, growers planted Everglade on Trinidad. The Citrus Experiment Station in Riverside, California, likewise planted the variety. The fruit is tart, having 2 to 10 seeds. Everglade bears fruit in clusters. A second variety, Kagzi, is the most popular lime in India.

Larger than the Key lime tree, the Persian lime tree grows 15 to 20 feet tall. Branches bear few thorns. A Persian lime tree flowers intermittently with a large number of blooms in January. Fruit is oval and the peel green when immature and light yellow when ripe. The pulp is green or yellow when ripe and divided into 10 segments. The Persian lime tree lacks the fragrance of the Key lime tree. The fruit of the Persian lime tree is often seedless, though some fruit may have one or a few seeds. Most Persian lime groves are in Dade County, Florida, though because the tree tolerates some cold, it is planted as far north as Winterhaven, Florida. In South Florida, growers plant Persian lime trees on limestone and on sandy soil farther north. The soil must drain well. Because trees that germinate from seeds may not resemble the parents, Persian lime trees are seldom propagated by seeds. Of 114 seedlings at the Agricultural Research and Education Center of the University of Florida at Homestead, only 10 resembled the parents.

Where Persian lime is grafted, lemon, alemow, sweet orange, or grapefruit is the rootstock. Growers plant Persian lime trees closer than Key lime trees. The standard spacing is 10 to 15 feet apart at a density of 150 to 200 trees per acre. Because Persian lime trees bear year-round, they need abundant fertilizer, with applications of nitrogen at least four times per year. Some growers enrich the soil with 4-6-6 fertilizer every 60 days. Potassium may be particularly important in ensuring a high yield of Persian limes. Seventy percent of Persian limes ripen between May and autumn, with the largest yield between July and September. Harvesting fruit 10 to 12 times per year, growers often pick Persian limes by hand to be sure of taking only fruit in an early stage of ripeness. The yield is best on ale- mow rootstock. Fruit remains edible after six to eight weeks’ refrigeration. Not a hardy tree, the Key and Persian limes are less cold tolerant than lemon.


Most of Mexico’s harvest of Key limes is eaten fresh with a minority exported as juice. The peel yields oil for export. The demand for lime oil increased in the 1970s. The island of Dominica grows Key limes for juice. The island’s eight factories process Key limes into juice for export to the United Kingdom. Of Dominica’s processors, L. Rose and Company produces the renowned Rose’s Lime Juice. Soft drink manufacturers buy lime juice. Jamaica, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, and the Dominican Republic export juice and oil. Montserrat also produces lime juice. Ghana and Gambia are among Africa’s leaders in the production of lime juice. Niue exports fresh limes and an even larger quantity of juice and oil. New Zealand is the principal importer of Niue’s limes. Lime peel from Niue and elsewhere is made into marmalade, jelly, and jam.

Cooks use lime to flavor fish and meat. Zest from the peel is added to beverages. Lime juice is added to alcoholic beverages and is made into syrup and sauce. As a rule, 2,200 pounds of fruit yield 1,058 pounds of juice. Lime juice is an ingredient in limeade. Floridians combine lime wedges with avocado. Lime juice may substitute for vinegar in dressing and sauce. Lime juice may be used to rinse hair after shampooing. Used as a rinse, lime juice imparts blond streaks to dark hair. Lime juice may be applied to the face as a tonic. Some Floridians clean coffee pots with lime juice and shred a whole lime in a garbage disposal to dissipate odors. Lime may be made into pie, as the renowned Key lime pie attests. As its name suggests, Key lime pie was once made from Key limes, though today the Persian lime is the source of this treat. Florida limes supply the fresh market and are bottled or frozen as lime juice, juice concentrate, or limeade. Malaysians preserve limes in syrup, pickle them, and fry them in coconut oil and add sugar to make an appetizer. Indians pickle limes, sometimes pairing them with chili pepper, turmeric, or ginger. India exports dried limes to Iraq. Indonesians eat minced lime leaves. Filipinos consume the peel with milk and coconut. The people of the Caribbean use lime juice to dye leather. On the island of Saint John, people use a moisturizer made of lime. Some stockmen feed lime peel to their animals. Lime oil is added to perfume. Lime juice soothes mosquito bites. Malaysians drink lime juice to settle an upset stomach. Pickled limes are used as a poultice to treat neuralgia. Indians eat pickled limes to relieve indigestion. Lime juice is an antiseptic and a diuretic and is used to treat hemorrhage, hemorrhoids, heart palpitations, headache, cough, rheumatism, arthritis, hair loss, bad breath, sore throat, and fever. Despite these uses, oil from the peel may irritate skin. Sap from a lime tree may cause a rash on skin.

Christopher Cumo

Further Reading

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (accessed 21 December 2011).

Morton, Julia F. “Mexican Lime.” mexican_lime.html (accessed 21 December 2011).

Morton, Julia F. “Tahiti Lime.” _lime.html (accessed 21 December 2011).

Spalding, William A. The Orange: With a Brief Discussion of the Lemon, Lime, and Other Citrus Fruits. Riverside, CA: Press and Horticulturist Steam Print, 1885.

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