Lemons and Limes

While preparing the latest Vocabulary Rocks! edition for the letter L — read that blog HERE – I was fascinated by the histories of these common citrus fruits. Rather than go into depth on a vocabulary blog when there are so many other interesting L words, I decided to devote a whole article to these tart fruits. So pucker up and read on!


The name for the common, tart citrus fruit dates to c.1400, lymon, from the 12th century Old French limon meaning “citrus fruit” which comes via Provençal or Italian from Arabic laimun and Persian limun. Apparently brought from India to the Levant by the Arabs in the 9th or 10th century, the word is perhaps ultimately from an Austronesian word of the Malay archipelago, such as the Balinese limo and Malay limaw.

Derivatives of the Arabic laimun were first adopted by both the English and the Spanish. The French, Germans, Poles and Hungarians all used a form of the Old Latin term citron, which referred to an extinct, bitter cousin of the orange that was popular in the Roman Empire.

Following the pathway of the name, the lemon originally came from the foothills of Kashmir, reaching China around 1900 B.C. Shortly thereafter, the fruit made its way to Persia and the Middle East, and was eventually brought by the Arabs to Greece via Constantinople, and to the Iberian Peninsula via the North African Maghrib and Fezzan (modern-day Algeria and Morocco, respectively) around the 10th century.

The first substantial cultivation of lemons in Europe began in Genoa in the middle of the 15th century. The lemon was introduced to the Americas in 1493 when Christopher Columbus brought lemon seeds to Hispaniola on his voyages. Spanish conquest throughout the New World helped spread lemon seeds and by the 19th century, lemons were increasingly planted in Florida and California.

In 1747, James Lind’s experiments on seamen suffering from scurvy involved adding lemon juice to their diets, even though vitamin C was not yet known as an important dietary ingredient.

More etymology:
Lemon-juice is attested from 1610s.
Lemonade is from 1660s, nativized from the French limonade (17c.), which is from Italian limonata.
Lemon-drop, the candy, is from 1807.

The two major types of limes have very different origin stories, and both came to the West much later than the lemon.

The name lime derives from the Arabic lima, which in turn is a derivation of the Persian limu. Phonetically, both of the primary lime varieties from which all sub-varieties were spawned, bear the same name.


Persian limes on the tree.

The larger lime we are most familiar with are properly labeled a Tahitian or Persian lime. It originated in Persia (modern day Iran) and was introduced to the Mediterranean region at an unknown time. The lime was introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the 1630s. Portuguese traders carried it to Brazil, from where it migrated to other parts of South America and then onto Australia about 1824. When Spaniards later discovered limes growing in what is now Peru — where it was phonetically spelled from its Quechuan (Incan) word as lima — they founded the capital city Lima, naming it after the fruit.

The lime entered the US by way of California via Tahiti somewhere between 1850-1880. From there it swiftly traveled to Florida, the tropical climates in the southernmost parts of the state perfect for citrus. Read more about this in the next section.

Persian/Tahitian limes, or just plain limes to most folk, grows on a tree that has no thorns. The fruit is oval-shaped, about the same size as a lemon, has a thicker skin (so it keeps longer) that is smooth and vivid green but does yellow when very ripe. It is usually seedless, has a light-green to yellowish pulp, and is very juicy.

Key Lime

The Key lime was the first lime enjoyed by Europeans, although they would not have called it by that name.

Originally from Asia’s Indo-Malayan region, this tiny type of lime was carried to North Africa by Arabs, then brought into Spain and Portugal. European Crusaders introduced the fruit known by its Arabic name lima to Mediterranean countries in the 13th century, Italy and France the first to begin cultivating the trees. Somewhere in the early part of the 16th century, Spanish traders brought the lime to the West Indies, Mexico, the Caribbean countries (Haiti a mass producer by 1520), and finally to Southern Florida in the United States.

Almost ripe Key limes on the tree.

Over time, as the fruit made its way from country to county, it was primarily known as the Mexican or West Indian lime. In Florida, where lemons were cultivated in huge groves, these “Mexican” limes were initially ignored. Additionally, although difficult to believe now, there was market resistance to the lime, buyers viewing the puny fruit labeled a “green lemon” dubiously. Nevertheless, as with other citrus, they also proliferated in the temperate climate, so much so that they were considered a weed!

Then, in 1894-95 the Great Freeze destroyed the Florida lemon groves, but to the delight of farmers, those lime tree “weeds” were unharmed. Between the introduction of Persian limes in 1883, which had altered the negative public opinion of limes in general, and the flourishing, weather-hardy Mexican limes, a new era of lime growing began. Florida naturalized the fruit and they soon became a “beloved regional crop” grown on a large scale commercially. The “Key” was added to this variety of lime from the Florida Keys, where the fruit was particularly abundant, and the name has stuck.

Tragedy again struck when an unnamed hurricane in 1926 wiped out the Key lime plantations in South Florida. Growers replanted with Persian limes, which are easier to pick and transport, and limes have remained a central Floridian crop to this day.

As for the pure Key lime, it is almost a phantom in the Florida Keys. Any remaining trees are found in back yards and their fruit never leaves the Keys. Key limes are only grown for commercial use in the Miami area and most market sold “Key limes” are imported from Mexico and parts of Central and South America.

The Key lime is small, spherical shaped, contains seeds, and has a very thin rind that is smooth. The skin is green but of a lighter shade with yellow areas typical. The pulp isn’t as juicy, but is much more aromatic.

Key Lime Pie

The rarity of the pure Key lime leads to a major debate over what is a correct Key Lime Pie. For a bit of historical context, while no one person is credited with creating the pie recipe, there is no question it originated from the specific Key limes grown in Florida. As such, the Key Lime Pie is a uniquely American dessert, and uniquely tied to Florida, hence Floridians being extremely territorial when it comes to the Big Pie Debate!

William Curry (1821-1896), a ship salvager and Florida’s first self-made millionaire (commonly referred to as rich Bill), had a cook who was simply known as Aunt Sally. She is often cited as the creator of the pie in the late 1800s, but many historians believe Aunt Sally merely perfected a delicacy that was the creation of area fishermen. The truth shall likely never be uncovered as there are no written recipes until the 1930s. It was simply one of those recipes that every cook in Florida knew how to make!

One of the key (pun intended) ingredients to a perfect Key Lime Pie is sweetened condensed milk. The reason for this has to do with no refrigeration or ice or fresh milk due to limited transport into the Florida Keys until the opening of the Overseas Highway in 1930. Local cooks relied on the canned milk invented by Gail Borden in 1856.

Obviously, a Key lime is the main ingredient… but those precious Florida-grown limes remain a carefully guarded and tiny crop. Therefore, the limes commonly used in a Key Lime Pie are from Mexico, which is, of course, where Florida got their “Key limes” in the first place. Nevertheless, some folks vociferously argue, it isn’t a real Key lime unless it is grown IN the Florida keys, so…..

Since I’ve only eaten the pie a few times and never baked one myself, I have no dog in the fight. I would be curious what y’all think though!



Sharon Lathan

Sharon Lathan is the best-selling author of The Darcy Saga, a ten-volume sequel series to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Oh wow! I didn’t realise there was a lime called key lime, I thought it was just the name of the dessert from Florida. I love all this information thank you.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x