The Mystery of the Multiplying Meyer Lemons

I thought I had planted nine Meyer lemon seeds – 3 chitted and 6 direct sown….

…..and yet… I now count….

…THIRTEEN Meyer lemons! (There are four in the gray pot at the top right – two are tiny shoots that are difficult to see in the photo.) How did that happen??

I had to transplant the six plants on the left from the pot on the bottom right this weekend, because they were getting too crowded. At the outset of this experiment, I really didn’t expect many of the seeds to germinate. I thought of the nine I planted, I might get one or two, maybe three actual plants. But to my dismay (or delight) every last one, not only germinated, but formed a small plant with real leaves. Plus, I somehow grew four extra plants! Did I black out when I was planting seeds? Did I sow seeds in my sleep?

It’s a mystery.

Now I have to figure out if I’m going to bring all thirteen with me to California, or just select the best ones. That will be like picking a favorite child.

(See the other parts of the Meyer Lemon sage here, here, here, here, and here.)

We Have A Winner!

Over the past week, not one….not two… but FIVE direct-sown Meyer Lemon seeds have sprouted.

If you missed the first post about the Meyer Lemon seeds, and don’t know what I’m talking about read this first.

I chitted (green-sprouted, paper towel method, whatever you want to call it) three Meyer lemon seeds and direct sowed six seeds to see whether it was really worth the time and fussiness of green-sprouting first before planting. (Note: In my original post, I direct sowed three, but I was super skeptical that they would sprout, so I added three more to the pot a couple days later for good measure.

Well, as you know, two of the chitted Meyer lemon seeds germinated. I planted both chitted seeds in soil (the first on 4/11/20 and the second on 4/24/20). The one planted on 4/11 sprouted out of the dirt on 4/25. The seed planted on 4/24 sprouted out of the dirt on 5/2. In between the first seed sprouting and the second seed sprouting, FIVE of the six direct sown seeds sprouted.

The chitted seed is on the left and the direct sown seeds are on the right

That to me is an obvious vote for direct sowing. Five of six direct sown seeds sprouted in the same time it took 2 of 3 chitted seeds to sprout. Yes, I know it’s an N of 9, but I got better (or at least equal) results with direct sown Meyer lemons, and I didn’t have to bother with scarification or unfolding the paper towel every few days to see if anything had germinated. I just put the seeds in the soil, kept them moist, and waited.

To be fair, though, the chitted seed (in the above photo on the left) is a bit bigger than the other seeds, but I’m sure they’ll catch up quickly.

Another interesting part of this experiment is how long it took to get sprouts. I was almost about to give up. It took almost six weeks to get cotyledons. From what I read online, two weeks is standard. Not sure why my seeds are such slow pokes. My best guess is that they wanted warmer weather. Any other hypotheses?

Let’s just hope I can keep them alive during my upcoming move to California!

Update on the Citrus Seeds!

It’s been 26 days since I planted/chitted the citrus seeds, and the update is….well…mixed.

None of the seeds that were planted directly in soil have sprouted yet.

One of my chitted blood orange seeds rotted.

The seed at the bottom of this image is just soft white mush inside a seed coating

But….. one of the chitted Meyer Lemons has sprouted! Hooray!

A sprout!

The photo above is from 3 days ago. Nine days prior to that, I had removed the outer shells on the Meyer Lemons, after seeing no changes to the seeds for 14 days.

This, according to Plant Parenting, is called scarification.

While most annual vegetable seeds do not require pre-soaking or any special preparation for germination, seeds of some natives, perennials, and fruits with hard coats will require a bit of extra work on your part, whether it be a longer chitting/soaking period, scarification, stratification, or inoculation with rhizobium bacteria…. Seed scarification involves scraping away part of the hard coating to expose the seed to water and gases that trigger germination. In the natural environment, temperature, soil microbes, and even fire can break down seed coats. Animals eat seeds, which are then exposed to stomach acid which breaks down the seed coat.

Planting Parenting by Leslie Halleck

She has some very interesting suggestions for how to scarify seeds.

I just pulled off the seed coating using my finger nails. It’s hard to know if the scarification helped, or if the seeds just needed more time…

Now that I have a sprouted seed, I need to plant it! But how soon do I plant it? Should I plant it right away, as soon as I see a sprout? Or do I wait for the sprout to get bigger?

I couldn’t find any consistent solid guidance on this, so I decided to wait for the sprout to get a little bigger. Here it is two days after I first noticed the sprout (yesterday):

It grew a tiny bit more.

I decided to plant it at that point. I put it in the same pot as the direct-sown Meyer lemon seeds. As you can see there is no growth of the other Meyer Lemons (at least from what I can see above the soil). After planting the seed, I covered the pot again with a plastic bag to keep the humidity in, and crossed my fingers.

Will My Lemon Trees Produce Fruit?

I have to admit: Nate is driving the citrus-propagation train. He has lemons and kumquats and – I think – Meyer lemons and clementines. I also gave him some of my blood orange seeds to try to grow as well. Compared to my two measly lemon trees, his citrus plant collection is much more extensive in numbers. But these plants are slow growing. His biggest lemon trees, which have been growing for about one and a half years are not quite a foot tall.

Nate’s biggest lemon tree

As for myself, I haven’t jumped onto the citrus-propagating train quite so whole-heartedly. I’m a skeptic, and I have a few questions…

First of all, I’m not so sure the trees will actually produce fruit. I’ve been told that if you plant, say, an apple seed, it’s not a clone of the parent and will likely never bear fruit, or if it does, the fruit won’t taste as good.

Another concern I have is how tall the plants will get. We don’t have space outside to plant these trees, nor do we live in the right climate for citrus to grow outside. If the lemon trees aren’t able to reach their full mature height, will they still produce fruit?

Let’s do some research….

Photo by Ryan Baker on Pexels.com

The internet is confusing. Many sites, including gardeningknowhow.com, told me that lemon trees planted from seed won’t necessarily produce fruit (“However, trees produced via seed are not carbon copies of the parent and may take five or more years to fruit, with the resulting fruit generally inferior to those of the parent.”)

But according Plant Parenting (and confirmed by other reputable sources), many citrus varieties are actually apomictic, which means they form seeds asexually, and thus the seeds are genetic clones of the parent trees. (Side note: apomixis is apparently rare in the world of crop plants, and only seen in tropical plants like mangos and citrus.)

In regard to the size of the trees, according to (seemingly-reputable) sources on the internet, the most common types of lemons in the grocery store are Lisbon Lemons and Eureka Lemons, which account for 90% of the lemons we see in store. The Bearss Lemon is a variety more commonly used in commercial lemon products. Lastly, we see Meyer Lemons in the grocery store, but these arenโ€™t really lemons (I’ll talk about that more later). 

Image taken from crfg.org

Lisbon Lemons originally came from a Portuguese variety of lemon that was then cultivated in Australia and finally made its way to the US in the mid-1800s. Lisbon lemon trees, like essentially all lemons, can be grown outdoors in zones 9 and 10. They are drought tolerant and pretty productive, which is why growers like them. They can grow up to 30 feet tall.

The Eureka Lemon is a native of Los Angeles, California. The tree is less thorny than the Lisbon lemon, and is everbearing, which makes also it quite attractive to growers, but it is not quite as hardy and vigorous as the Lisbon Lemon. This tree reportedly grows up to 20 feet tall.

If you buy a lemon tree from a nursery, you’ll likely have the option to buy a Eureka or Lisbon lemon tree grafted onto dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstock, so that you can grow a smaller tree. In addition, certain rootstock may convey more vigor to the tree. True dwarf rootstock comes from the Flying Dragon Orange, an orange that is supposedly edible, but sour, and grows about 6 feet tall. Semi-dwarf rootstock would give you a tree that wants to be 15-20 feet tall.

A Meyer Lemon is actually a hybrid between a lemon and a mandarin. It originated from China, but was named after Frank N. Meyer, a man who the USDA sent over to China in the early 1900s to bring plant new and interesting plant species. The tree is naturally on the smaller side: 10-15 feet tall when mature.

Most kumquats are also naturally smaller, growing up to 15 feet tall. A standard blood orange tree seems to want to reach a similar height of 10-15 feet tall. (All of the mature tree heights I give are based on a compilation of a variety of websites; each one says something slightly different, but the numbers I give seems to be about the average.)

With all of these trees, if we keep them in containers, they will grow slower and will not grow as large as if they were planted in the ground, but they will eventually outgrow the largest pot we can put them in.

My next question about growing lemons from seed was whether the tree will produce fruit before they reach their mature size.  Laura from GardenAnswer grew a standard variety of Meyer Lemon, which she says wanted to grow 13-15โ€™, and I was surprised to see it produced about 10 lemons when it was only a few feet tall!

Planting video: Summer 2019
That same plant produced about 10 lemons that winter!
(The Pink Lemonade lemon is a variegated, pink-fleshed variety of Eureka Lemon)

Although she planted is a Meyer lemon, which is naturally smaller than a Lisbon or Eureka Lemon, this gives me hope that in 5 (or 10) years, we will see fruit on the citrus trees that we’re planting.

Lauraโ€™s advice for growing lemons in containers is to keep them on the dry side (allow them to almost, but not quite, dry out completely between watering) and to give them as much bright sunlight as possible (8-12 hours minimum, south-facing window). She recommended planting the trees in generic potting soil if planting in a terracotta pot, which dries out faster, or, if planting in a plastic pot, using cactus potting soil, which has a bit more drainage than traditional potting soil.

In one of her later videos, she collects seeds from her Meyer Lemons to try growing more lemon trees.

Skip to minute 11:07 to see her plant the lemon seeds from her homegrown Meyer Lemon

She just plunked the seeds straight from the fruit into potting soil and covered it with a cloche to keep the humidity in. This is similar to my set up.

It will be fun to see how Lauraโ€™s lemon trees do! We’ll be harvesting lemons and oranges in no time!

I kid. I couldn’t find a good source for this information, but some people on the internet say it can take 3-6 or 5-10 years for the plant to produce fruit. Hmmm….patience is not my strong suit.

Well, that’s all I have for you today, but be sure to check back in with me in 2025, and I’ll let you know how it’s going.