Symbol of the Mediterranean warmth and sun, the lemon has nevertheless Asian origins and comes precisely from the Far East (India and China) were it was found growing wild.
Known in China, India and in the Mesopotamian civilizations for its antiseptic, anti-rheumatic and refreshing properties and considered sacred in Muslim countries, it was mainly used as an antidote against poisons, as an astringent against dysenteric and haemorrhagic symptoms as well as to keep the Devil away from homes. Ancient Egyptians used it to embalm their mummies and they often put it in tombs with dates and figs.
Greeks imported it from Media and used it as decoration and to scent linen and to protect it from clothes-moths. The first clear descriptions of the usage of lemon for therapeutic purposes date back to the works of Theophrastus, Aristotle’s pupil, who is considered the founder of phyto-therapy. Hellenics were used to growing lemon trees near olive trees to preserve them from parasitic attacks.
Also Pliny spoke about the lemon in his treatments and prescribed it, moreover, as an antidote against various poisons. Even though it is supposed that Ancient Romans did not know the fruit, in 1951 an archaeological discovery disproved this widespread opinion: in fact during excavations made in Pompei a house, named the ” Orchard House“, was excavated, and frescoes were found depicting various plants among which, precisely, a lemon tree. Considering that Pompei was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. and that Pliny the Elder had already mentioned it before his death (during the same eruption) in his work Naturalis Historia, it is certain, therefore, that the lemon was naturalized and acclimatized in Campania in the first century b.C., even if as a rare fruit. Among the Romans it seems that Emperor Nero was a regular consumer of this fruit, obsessed as he was with the premonition of a possible poisoning.
In the West the lemon had become more widespread around the year 1000 thanks to Arabs who brought it to Sicily. The first description of the lemon, introduced from India two centuries before, appeared in fact in Arab writings in the twelfth century. The origins of the name come from the Persian (DIEH Limu).
In Europe the first real cultivation of lemons was planted in Genoa in the middle of the fifteenth Century. In 1494 lemons appeared in the Azores, while in America lemon and other citrus trees were brought by the Spanish and by the missionaries after Christopher Columbus discovery.
In the XV century they also discovered that lemon juice treated and kept away scurvy, a disease widespread among sailors who lived for long periods only on flours, preserved food and other food lacking in vitamin C. Eventually they ascertained that scurvy was due to the extended and massive lack of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) present in fruit and fresh vegetables and this also explains why they started to use lemons in large quantities on board ships.
The fruit was also introduced in Northern European countries by means of sea voyages. The ships which arrived in the Mediterranean stocked up on lemons, paying for them with valuable goods or even gold. The fruits bought were resold at very high prices in the countries of the North, were lemon was considered a luxury product, but mainly used as an ornament and a medicine. Only in the XVIII Century lemon started to be used in cooking to flavour foods and drinks.
Did you know…?
Sicilians took some centuries to understand what a resource lemon was for them.
Well, Sicily has not always been the country of lemons and of lemon growing. It is true that the lemon tree had been present since ancient times and that Arabs and Normans, since the time of their rule, appreciated it. Nevertheless the intensive farming of lemons and citrus fruits on the island only started in the XVII Century by the Jesuits.
The spreading of the so-called “Mediterranean garden” then took place with the cultivations of the feudatories, emphyteuta and censual, which also determined the development and final roots of citrus cultivation in the Sicilian economy.