Think of it: every time you go to the fruit section of the grocery store, you are offered so many choices of citrus that it’s mind-boggling.
And there are often new varieties you never heard about before: Cara cara oranges; Meyer lemons; blood oranges.
It is astounding to think that the whole smorgasbord began with 4 humble taxa: the four core ancestral citrus taxa are
1. citron (C. medica)
2. pummelo (C. maxima)
3. mandarine (C. reticulata)
4. papeda (C. micrantha)
For a thousand years the citron (a kind of lemon) was the only kind of citrus fruit in Europe, nor did not lose its monopoly over the Italian peninsula until Arabic invaders brought lemons and sour oranges to Sicily.
Today, authorities agree that all citrus species are native to Southeast Asia, where they are found wild and in an uncultivated form. The citron had begun its journey to Calabria by migrating slowly into China and across India. The climate it encountered outside Assam was so much hotter, drier and more challenging that it couldn’t survive without human help, but what possible appeal could it make to a farmer?
-Would you choose to eat its fruit? Not really.
-Was its wood good for burning? Not very.
-Was it useful for building? Not at all.
-Could anyone find shade beneath its branches? Certainly not.
-Did it at least live for a long time? No.
So it was a practical failure, and yet…
…there was something miraculous about it that could not be ignored. It had an almost supernatural ability to bear a full cargo of beautiful flowers and enormous golden fruit simultaneously throughout the year.
Everything about it was scented – its pale waxy flowers, its dark green leaves, its fruit and even the wood itself – and like a glamorous woman, it was constantly surrounded by a miasma of perfumed air.
Finally, the fruit seemed eternal, neither rotting nor falling from the tree.
Although it had no obvious practical use, the tree’s mysterious habits gave it a powerful and peculiar appeal, so that people seem always to have felt compelled to cultivate it, imbue it with symbolic significance, paint its portrait and include it in ancient stories.
The citron spread gradually from India into Persia, its fruit stowed deep inside the saddlebags of merchants moving along the caravan routes that ran from the Punjab in upper India through Afghanistan to Persia and Mesopotamia (between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq), or flashing gold among the cargoes of boats carried on monsoon winds from the west coast of India to Oman, before being taken overland to Iraq and then Iran.
And, citrons travelled well: they were slow to decay and their seeds were protected by the fruit’s enormous carapace of pith and peel.
The trees were fully acclimatized in Persia and Media (north-west Iran) by the fourth century BC, when Alexander the Great came storming through with his armies and a vast retinue of scientific experts. The scientists were commissioned by Alexander to record every aspect of the flora and fauna, geography, people, mineral deposits and infrastructure of the regions they passed through in the wake of his armies. 3 They were on the lookout for useful trees or crops that might be
Much of the above is taken, with my edits and additions from Wikipedia, from: Attlee, Helena (2015-01-05). The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and Its Citrus Fruit (Kindle Locations 2687-2695). Countryman Press. Kindle Edition.