Frank Meyer Is Lost…But His Wonderful Lemons Live On

The Meyer lemon. A Chinese houseplant until Frank Meyer came along in 1908. A USDA agricultural explorer (yes, his title was “Agricultural Explorer”), Meyer reportedly found these lemon tree growing in pots near Peking (now Beijing). It was pretty much considered an ornamental tree. Meyer was on a mission to collect new plant species. Among the 2,500 (!) he introduced into the US was the lemon that now bears his name. But being an agricultural explorer is not without it’s risks. Frank Meyer was lost when he mysteriously disappeared from a steamer on the Yangtze River near Shangai in 1918. He was never seen again. Most people believe he fell overboard and drowned.

In the early part of the 20th century, the Meyer lemon was a mostly local product; growing in California, Florida, and Texas. And mostly in backyards. The fruit wasn’t grown commercially and introduced nationally because it’s delicate skin and high juice content made it difficult to successfully transport and store. They were simply too fragile. And for the most part they still remain harder to find, although more and more specialty grocers are starting to carry them. Meyer lemons are still more seasonal (and local) than other types of lemons. Their commercial harvest season generally runs from about December/January to May.

In the 1940s most of the Meyer lemon trees in California (where they were primarily grown) were found to carry a virus that was fatal to other citrus trees. Most of the Meyer lemon trees in the US were destroyed. By the 1950s scientists were able to develop a virus-free strain of Meyer lemon trees (Improved Meyer Lemon) and they were reintroduced in the late 1960s-early 1970s. In the 1980s they started to catch on as chefs such as those at Chez Panisse started to use them. They really gained notoriety as Martha Stewart began using them in her recipes.

The Meyer lemon has a beautiful yellow color (almost like an egg yolk). It’s rounder than regular lemons and have an almost baby-soft skin. And it’s flavor is unique. Some have described it as a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange (with maybe a touch of lime thrown in). As a matter of fact researchers now say that the Meyer lemon is almost certainly a hybrid of a sweet orange and a lemon. They are sweeter and more floral than standard lemons (typically Eureka and Lisbon varieties). It has a sweet edible rind (the layer of bitter white pith found in regular lemons is so thin on Meyer lemons that you can eat the whole fruit, peel included), lots of juice, and a lower acid level than a standard lemon.

If you’re lucky enough to find Meyer lemons, here are some tips for choosing and storing them:

  • They should be firm and the peel soft and smooth.
  • You can rub the skin with your fingernail and you should get the distinctive Meyer lemon scent (a sweet lemon with a slight herbal smell of bergamot).
  • Check the stem en. There should not be a hole where the fruit was picked. A hole indicates that the harvester was perhaps not as careful as they should be. And with Meyer lemons being so sensitive…
  • Refrigerate them in aplastic bag.
  • If you want to store some for later, you can juice the lemon into ice cube trays, zest some over the top, and freeze in an airtight bag. The flavor should remain for several months.

And if you want to try your hand at cooking with Meyer lemons, here are a few great resources to check out:

 

Now is the time to go searching for those wonderfully unique Meyer lemons. Let me know if you find some...and what you decide to do with them!