Two birthdays ago, a huge cardboard box arrived on my doorstep. Inside, buried within an absolute avalanche of packing peanuts, was a tiny Meyer lemon tree in a small terra cotta pot. This birthday gift was meaningful on a few different levels. First off, my husband had gotten me the perfect gift not because I'd asked for it, but because he'd been listening and reading between the lines. I'd recently written an article on Meyer lemons, and I was intrigued by the small, elegant citrus that was pretty much unavailable from markets on the East Coast. I was talking a lot about the little lemons, wondering wistfully, looking up recipes on the Internet and in books, imagining.
Until I opened the box in my kitchen that July day, I had no idea you could successfully grow a Meyer lemon tree in a small indoor space in New York. But my husband had gone to considerable lengths to research and provide me with just this wonderful thing. So I carefully took the little tree ~ it was about 2 feet tall ~ from its nest of packaging and installed it in the sunniest window in our house. And it flourished. A few leaves dropped, an expected consequence of the stress of undergoing a transcontinental jaunt in a cardboard box. But new leaves grew, and lusciously fragrant white blossoms emerged from among the dark green leaves.
Eventually the blossoms fell off, revealing tiny fruit no bigger than dried navy beans. And the little fruit smelled terrific too. And then winter came, and the window space got chilly. And my little Meyer lemon started to drop its leaves. And then I was horrified to see the little lemons begin to fall off too, one by one. Finally, all but three leaves had vacated the spindly tree, and a cluster of three tiny lemons were all that remained of the initially promising crop. They were deep green and sticky, covered with cat hair. The Meyer lemon tree of my dreams looked like something out of a citrus grower's nightmare.
I began to add a liquid houseplant fertilizer to its water, and it started to perk up a little. Spring came, leaves grew back, and the little lemons got bigger. They were now the size of prune plums.
And that's when Sofia, our cat, had an unfortunate clash with the little lemon tree. I knew at once it was an accident ~ a graceless startle or a badly landed jump had sent her directly into the path of the little tree (and its thorns), and the weight of the lemons swinging wildly snapped the branch from which they hung. I could have cried to see it dangling parallel to the slender trunk, those tiny lemons nearly resting in the sphagnum moss around the base of the tree. I had a brief moment of "Oh, forget it already ~ lemons in New York? Come on, you should have known it wouldn't work out!" And then I pulled myself together and went to fetch splint-making materials.
The Broken Branch Valiantly Bears Up
(Arrow shows electrical tape at repair site)
Sofia watched as I bound up the broken branch with electrical tape, using a heavy-dute paint stirrer to support the branch beneath the fruit. I then taped the stirrer to the pot to hold it in place. Sofi jumped up to the windowsill, meandered over to inspect my work, and promptly started scratching her chin against my painstakingly positioned splint, an activity that would thenceforth continue to occupy much of her free time.Scratching the Chin
That was a long, long time ago. It's now October, a year later, and those lemons have finally, miraculously ripened. The branch is bowed over the paint stirrer from the weight of the lemons, and evidence of Sofi's inability to leave the poor plant alone is present in the tufts of cat fur clinging to the electrical tape binding the stirrer to the pot. I don't know exactly how long these three lemons have been on the tree, but I do know it's been well over a year; I'll estimate 15 months. For a while there, we were starting to wonder if it might be a lime tree.
I knew that when I picked my little lemons, I had to have something really, really special for them to do. Something that would showcase the unique attributes of the Meyer lemon, and honor the hard-won fruit of my little tree's labors. I decided on Dorie Greenspan's Tartest Lemon Tart, because it's unusual in that it calls for the entire lemon ~ peel, pith, and all ~ to be used. Since the Meyer lemon has a wonderfully thin, mild rind and is extremely juicy for its size, this was the perfect recipe. I adapted it to make individual tartlets instead of one large tart. As such, it took only about half of the filling to make the tarts. The remainder I cooked off to make a silky, luxurious lemon curd. Recipes for both of these delights will follow soon.
Meyer Lemon Tartlet
Meyer Lemon Curd
After I picked the lemons, I removed the splint, pruned some of the overgrown foliage back, and gave my little Meyer lemon tree a good stiff drink of Miracle-Gro spiked water. Hopefully, it's already surreptitiously working on its next crop of lemons. If you want to try a Meyer lemon or other citrus tree, indoor or outdoor, for yourself, try these guys ~ that's where mine came from.
Sofia is finding it hard to get comfortable on the windowsill without her chin scratcher.
Sofi and the Meyer Lemon Tree