Battle with the lemon tree

When we moved to Savannah in 2013 and bought our house, we had a tree in the  yard that had a few small, round green fruit coming out. We weren’t even sure what it was. A good friend who has lived in Savannah a long time and who knows about such things informed us that we had a Meyer lemon tree. Beyond the Wikipedia definition, I’m still trying to figure out the difference between Meyer lemons and the kind of lemons normally sold in markets.

Since living in the area I’ve even seen Meyer lemons in a store, one of those fancy places that purports to sell mostly organic food. “Humph,” I laughed in the store, thinking, “I’ve got my own lemon tree. You’re not getting any of my money. I’m growing Meyer lemons at home,”

Our first season with the Meyer lemons was sparse. I checked on the definition of Meyers and learned they originally grew in China, introduced to the United States in early 20th Century, and they are a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange. I didn’t know much about when to pick them but they were growing so I picked them — green.

Not good.

The lemons were hard and I rolled them to soften the flesh so I could get a good squeeze. Fortunately, I have my grandmother’s depression-glass citrus squeezer, the same one I saw her use so many times when she squeezed oranges to make fresh juice. Squeezing the green lemons was hard work and yielded more seeds than juice. Eventually, I picked enough lemons to make a pitcher of lemonade.

Optimistically, I invested in a more modern but plastic juice squeezer, although still a manual device. I even tossed some fruit and vegetable fertilizer around the tree and gave it a good watering, hoping for the best.

Year two — no lemons. Not one. Year three we saw about a dozen lemons on the tree. They were small and hard. I picked them in late August before they ripened, impatient with the growing process. The lemonade was pretty good, just not enough of it. My new citrus squeezer mostly sat on a shelf — clean, still, waiting for some action.

At the end of the summer of 2016 I went into the yard and I had a long talk with the lemon tree.

“You’d better start giving me some lemons or I’m going to cut you down,” I threatened. A few days later I showed up in the yard with a loping tool and thick garden gloves, fearful the tree’s thorny branches would fight me back. I never attempted to cut down the tree but I gave it a good trimming. One by one, the long branches fell to the ground where I gathered them up and put them in refuse bags, and dragged the bags to the curb for the next Sanitation Department pickup.

Feeling quite smug about fighting with the lemon tree, I waited for spring to see what would happen. Spring brought new thorny branches and I didn’t pay much attention to the tree. Then one day I was in the garden and I walked by the lemon tree. Something caught my smelling sense. I backed up, walked closer to the lemon tree and I took a strong sniff.

“Ahhh, what’s that good smell?” I asked myself. I walked over to a nearby rose bush and sniffed. Nothing. Then I walked closer to the lemon tree again and took a deep breath. “Ahhhh, there it is again.”

I examined the tree, looking closely to see where that fragrant smell originated. And there they were, what looked like dozens of tiny pink blossoms all over the lemon tree. Weeks later, the blossoms yielded little round green fruit, some of them in clusters. I had lemons and I was going to be patient this year.

Patience paid off. The clusters grew into larger green fruit. And then one day, I saw something yellow.  My lemons were looking like — well, lemons. Now when I look out the kitchen window, I see what looks like dozens of yellowing lemons, so many that I make sure friends who come by always leave with a few lemons. I can’t squeeze them fast enough before they start dropping and rotting on the ground.

Yes, dear God! This is the year you gave me a lot of lemons. And we have fresh lemonade, and a lemon cake. with lemon glaze icing.

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Author of the memoir "Coming Full Circle: From Jim Crow to Journalism." Available for book talks and signings, speaking. (Signed copies available on this site)

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