Miss Marie, Miss Marie, I can climb a lemon tree!1
Frank Meyer, who was an acquisitions agent for the USDA operating in China in 1908, discovered a citrus tree growing as a potted plant in Beijing.2 He tasted the fruit, obtained the tree, and had it shipped back to the US. The specimen was designated a lemon and given his name. This Meyer lemon quickly gained popularity as an ornamental planting in California. In the mid-1940s it was discovered that the Meyer lemon tree harbored the citrus tristeza virus (spread by aphids). Fears that this virus might devastate the citrus crop led the State of California to prohibt and destroy Meyer lemon plantings.3 It took until 1970 for the development of a virus-free strain of the Meyer lemon to be introduced again, although many states and counties throughout the southern U.S. still prohibit the Meyer lemon from import. The research leading to the virus-free strain also seems to have established that the Meyer represents a hybrid between the common lemon (Lisbon or Eureka varietals) and the mandarin orange.
The Meyer lemon was again planted as an ornamental citrus in California. By the mid-80s, the curious sweet lemons came to the attention of Lindsey Shere, pastry chef at Chez Panisse. She championed the (nearly) exotic citrus in a number of desserts, particularly a Meyer Lemon Tart.4,5,6
The Meyer lemon tree has the thick shiny leaves of a citrus. It is cold-hardy (surviving down to 25 deg F) and flowers throughout the year. Fruits are smaller than fist-sized, with smooth skin that ripens to a yellow-orange tint. The peak season in California is December-February, but the Meyer will bear (slowly) throughout the year.7
Perhaps you are so lucky as to be gifted with a couple of these precious lemons or maybe you suspect that the expensive "Valley Lemon" at the grocery store might be Meyers. The smaller than fist-sized lemon should be yellow, slightly orange. The smooth skin should be supple, not dry. When cut, you will find the rind does not cover much pith, the pulp is tinted to the orange side of yellow. Even whole, a Meyer should be stored in plastic cling wrap to keep the skin from toughening. The taste is sweeter and less tart than a common lemon.
A distillery in St.Helena, California produces a citron vodka flavored with Meyer lemons called Charbay Meyer Lemon Vodka.8
1. Childish nonsense courtesy of the memory of a certain young wurm much entranced by the possibility of rhyme. The tree in question was a Meyer, the young wurm three.
2. This anecdote reported by <www.killerplants.com/weird-plants/20030206.asp> and substantiated by <www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/lemon.html>.
3. Mention of the virus <www.kathyrmiller.com/meyer_lemon_tree.htm>, further clarified by the Sunset magazine article "Lucious lemons" (Spring-Summer 1998)
4. The Sunset magazine article "The sweeter side of meyer lemons" (March 1997) carries recipes for "Meyer Lemon Custard Cream Pie", "Meyer Lemon Sorbet", and "Meyer Lemon Souffle", as well as comments from Lindsey Shere. <www.findarticles.com/cf_dls/m1216/n3_v198/19279860/p1/article.jhtml>.
5. Lindsey Shere authored Chez Panisse Desserts (1994, paperback), which includes a couple of recipes utilizing the Meyer lemon.
6. Recently elaborated by Emeril into a "Meyer Lemon Buttermilk Tart", a buttermilk custard in a flasky pie crust <www.foodnetwork.com/food/recipes/recipe/0,1977,FOOD_9936_22912,00.html>. I suppose that the Meyer lemons weren't tart enough.
7. Sunset magazine articles, ibid.
8. Website for Charbay Distillery <www.charbay.com/>. I am keen to comparatively taste their products.