There are over 1,000 different citrus fruits out there — and you owe it to yourself to try something a little different

There were once only four wild citrus species, but farmers and horticulturists have selected them for centuries for their amazing variety and abundance, says Charles Quest-Ritso.

Grapefruit used to be rare and exotic. My parents served them at dinner parties – I think they had a maraschino cherry in the middle. My father saved the seeds and planted them too, although they never germinated – grapefruits need a warmer temperature than we ever had in a vineyard or greenhouse. But my family has a hard time resisting the temptation to grow fruit trees from seed.

When my diplomat daughter was working in Japan, we discovered the aromatic delights of yuzu. It’s one of the smallest citrus fruits, but its rind, the only part worth eating, is deliciously flavorful to bite into at the end of a meal. At that time, yuzu was little known in Europe, so we brought seeds; they germinated very freely, and within a year or two we had some to give to friends. That was almost 20 years ago, and when we meet them now, these friends invariably tell me that their relationship has not yet begun to bear fruit. We don’t either, but it’s hard to throw away plants that you’ve been fiddling with for so long.

A French nursery named Michel Baschet, who specializes in unusual citrus fruits, told me that I needed to buy a named variety, chosen for its early fruiting. Too bad I didn’t follow his advice, now that importing plants from mainland Europe is so difficult. Yuzu is available from a number of English nurseries, but no English nursery can match the number of citrus varieties – around 1,000 – that Bashe’s nursery sells.

This figure – 1000 different citrus fruits – is mainly the result of centuries of hybridization between Chinese and Japanese nurseries. The oranges, tangerines, lemons, and grapefruits we eat today are all hybrids that came from crossing four wild species ancestors. We all know what an orange or lemon smells and tastes like, but it’s amazing to realize that these distinctive features are the result of intense human selection. Modern growers grow and select new varieties for ease of peeling, resistance to damage, and shelf life—or refrigerated shelf life if, like the Americans, you artificially refrigerate all fruit.

I grow – or have already grown – four unusual citrus fruits. (It is a pity that in English there is no simple collective noun for them, as in French citrus and Italian citrus.) The best among my citrus varieties is the Meyer lemon, which is very short (3 feet) and grows easily in a cool greenhouse. The fruit is shaped like a lemon, but orange on the inside and not as sour as real lemons – delicious with Chinese tea.

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Meyer lemon is not as lemony as it seems.

Chinese tea is not like Earl Grey, but the latter owes its special taste to the addition of bergamot oil. This is due to the rough skin of the ugly greenish bergamot, which is the main industry in southern Italy. My plant came from a Dutch nursery near Catania along with another citrus fruit grown for its fragrant peel – citron, similar to a large shaggy lemon. Citrons are one of the native species from which most citrus fruits are descended.

Its name causes confusion among Francophones because citron is the French word for lemon. Stick to an Italian name cedar or Latin citrus medicine. Their thick skins are usually candied, but the smell of the skins is invigorating, which is why we always rub their skins for a twist. However, I must confess that neither our bergamot nor our cedar ever had so much fruit on it as when we first bought it. Both are now dead…

Citrus fruits require varying degrees of warmth to grow well and produce good, regular yields. All of them are greenhouse plants in our climate, but there is one species that is resistant in most of Britain. It was formerly known as Poncirus trifoliate – or Japanese bitter orange – but was recently included in the genus Citrus by the know-it-all botanists of the Royal Horticultural Society.

Poncirus Trifoliata, aka Japanese bitter orange.

The bush is a tangle of green twigs and large thorns that help the insignificant leaves to photosynthesize and create an impenetrable, deer-proof hedge up to 6 feet high – taller in hot climates. The fruits are small, green and fragrant, but very bitter and full of seeds. The flowers, however, are the same as orange or lemon flowers and smell just as sweet.

My grandson is now trying to germinate grapefruit seeds. I told him to start them to Aga. If he succeeds, he will no doubt offer me a small plant, and I will do my best to keep it alive.

When he reaches fruiting size, I will invite him to taste his creation. But I probably won’t put a maraschino cherry in the middle.

Charles Quest-Ritson wrote the RHS Encyclopedia of Roses.

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