In modern society, lemons are well-loved for their tart flavour in food and drinks. Lemon-scented products are also extremely popular in many parts of the world. From lemonade and lemon flavoured sweets to lemon-scented cleaning products and lemon oil, lemons are well-known throughout the modern world. However, many people do not know that lemons have been utilised by different cultures throughout history. From the gardens of ancient Rome and Egypt to the diets of travelling sailors, the history of the lemon is as juicy as the fruit itself!
What Are Lemons, Exactly?
Lemons, like most citrus fruits, grow from a particular type of evergreen tree scientifically known as Citrus limon (2). Lemon trees thrive best in tropical climates that offer substantial amounts of heat and humidity, but are very sensitive to the cold and will not survive in cool climates (2). However, lemon trees are well-known among agriculturalists for their ability to tolerate poor types of soil, and are able to grow in places where other types of plants would not survive. Today, there are over 20 different types of lemons being grown around the world (2). The largest harvests of lemon are found in California, Florida and Italy, but different types of lemons are also produced in Mexico, China, India, Turkey and South America (15). Lemon trees can grow up to 33 feet in height, and their branches normally have thorns and shiny green leaves extending from them (2). When the lemon tree blooms, it produces small, white, five-petalled flowers. During late summer to early autumn, these flowers produce the popular citrus fruit which can be harvested from the tree (2).
Experts speculate that all types of citrus fruit that exist today originated from three main kinds of fruit in the past: citrons, pomelos and mandarins (8). Through genetic sequencing, scientists have discovered that lemons are a hybrid cross between citrons and sour oranges, and are believed to have originated over thousands of years ago (8). In relation to their make-up, lemons are high in Vitamin C as well as a number of other vitamins and nutrients such as Vitamin B, calcium, iron, potassium and zinc (2). Chemically, lemons consist of many different phytochemicals such as polyphenols, terpenes and tannins (2). Along with this, 5-6% of all lemons are purely citric acid and measure at 2.2 on the pH scale (2).
Lemon Across Time
Similar to other types of citrus fruits, such as bergamot, lemons are believed to have originated in Southeast Asia. In particular, lemons have been connected to China, Burma and a region of India known as Assam. However, it is unknown which of these regions was the original habitat of the lemon tree. Archaeological evidence attests that lemons have been cultivated for over 4,000 years (2), and were brought out of Asia some time near around the 200 BCE where they are said to have been used in Israel as part of Jewish rituals (6). By 200 AD, traders had brought lemons to northern Italy. This is where they became popular among the Roman elite (2).
Later on, lemons also became popular in Arabic countries, such as Egypt and Persia, when merchants began to trade them with increasing frequency. By 700 AD, lemon groves were commonly grown by farmers who used them for economic purposes and also by nobility who planted them in their gardens for aesthetics (2). Lemons were brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1493, who carried some lemon seeds from Spain and planted them in Hispaniola when he arrived (2). By 1751, lemons had been brought to North America where they were grown in more tropical states such as California and Florida (2).
Lemons: The Name Squeeze
The name “lemon” was first used to refer to this citrus fruit during the Middle Ages, sometime around 1300-1450 AD, and is believed to be a mix of the French word “limon” and the Italian term “limone”. These terms are believed to have been derived from the Arabic term “laymun” and the Persian word “limun” (2). The exact translation of these terms are unknown, but historical documents attest that the Persians and Arabs used them to refer to the yellow fruit that had been popular in their countries for centuries.
Although lemon is the most well-known part of the plant, many cultures have also found uses for lemon juice, lemon oil and the leaves of a lemon tree. Along with being consumed in various forms, lemons have been used to make medicine, beauty products and even invisible ink! Keep reading to learn more about how useful and valuable lemons have been throughout history.
In different historical societies, lemons were used for a variety of medical purposes. In ancient Egypt and Rome, lemon juice and lemon oil would be used to treat common illnesses such as colds and fevers and ancient Egyptians would ingest lemon juice at regular intervals to help protect them against poison (2). While it is unclear whether it was food poisoning or assassins that had the Egyptians so concerned, they clearly utilised lemons to protect them from dangers to their health. Similarly, ancient Greeks and Romans claimed that lemons or lemon juice could be used to help people survive snake bites, and that those who were bitten by snakes after eating lemons showed no sign of being affected by their venom (2)!
In the past, Jewish midwives would use lemon oil to help ease pregnancy and facilitate birth (1). In China, lemon oil was used to treat a variety of illnesses such as bronchitis, parasites, bleeding gums, malaria and heartburn. Lemon juice was also used to treat various gastro-intestinal related issues such as diarrhea, dysentery and slow digestion (1). Along with that, some societies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East utilised the antiseptic and antibacterial properties to help treat wounds and to keep cuts from getting infected (1).
In Europe, lemons were used to treat a variety of illnesses during the Medieval and Renaissance eras. Among other things, Europeans used lemons to treat seasickness, gastrointestinal disorders and migraines. Europeans also used lemon oil to treat asthma, parasites, toothaches and insomnia (1). In Tudor England, lemon cordials known as “Water Imperials” were popular among the nobility, who would drink them for healing (2). Medieval people in France were also known for making a cordial known as “Carmelite water” out of lemon peel and nutmeg that was believed to renew someone’s youth, revive their energy and help strengthen their mental health (13). In 1747, Dr. James Lind discovered that lemons could be used to keep sailors from getting scurvy on long voyages (6). As a result, the Royal English Navy adopted a policy of having its sailors take lemons on their voyages to keep their crew from dying of scurvy (6).
Eating and Drinking Lemon
Along with its medicinal uses, the use of lemon in cuisine is a practice that spans thousands of years. The first records of lemon-sweetened drinks date back to ancient Egypt, over 2,000 years before present day. Lemon drinks continued to be popular in Egypt throughout the centuries and by the 13th century, a lemon drink known as qatarmizat was being traded through the Mediterranean (1)). In countries such as Morocco and Egypt, lemon tea was made by brewing the leaves of a lemon tree (2).
During the times of the Crusades, European knights and soldiers were introduced to the lemon drinks that were well-liked in the area around that time (3). Many of these knights would later take lemons and recipes for lemon drinks back to Europe with them, where they would become exceedingly popular among European elite (3). In the 17th century, lemonade officially debuted in Paris and became so well-loved that there was actually a French union formed around the sale of lemonade (15)! After the invention of carbonation in 1780, lemonade was manufactured in bulk and sold in many different countries around the world (15).
In addition to lemon drinks, there are many different types of foods that have included lemons. Lemon-flavoured custards, puddings and pies have been made as far back as medieval times. In the early 1800s, lemon was combined with recipes for meringue pie to create the modern lemon-meringue pie as we know it (15). During this time, lemon pudding became more popular in America while lemon-flavoured tarts, such as the “Liverpool Tart”, gained more popularity in England (15). Along with desserts, different cultures have made various types of soups and sauces using lemons. In Tunisia, a traditional fish and tomato stew includes lemon juice as one of its main ingredients (15). In Italy and the Mediterranean, there are various types of soups and stews that include lemon as one of its main ingredients (15). In France, there is a type of traditional sauce made from lemon juice, olive oil and chopped basil (15).
In addition to being used for medicinal and culinary purposes throughout history, lemons and lemon essential oil has often been used in beauty products. In Victorian England, lemon juice was used as a skin cleanser and a way to produce the look of “natural beauty” often prized during that era (8). Along with this, Victorian women would sometimes apply lemon oil to their lips to give them an extra shine without making them look unnatural (8). In the early 1900s, women in the Western world would drink lemon juice or apply it to their faces as a way to help them maintain a “feminine complexion” (8).
Lemons were also used for various types of hair-related beauty standards throughout history. In 10th century Arab countries, such as Iraq and Egypt, women would use a paste made from lemon juice to remove their eyelashes and body hair (8). In the 1500s, Venetian women would dye their hair blonde using a mixture of lemons and licorice bark (8).
Aside from being consistently used in cooking, medicine and beauty products, lemon has played a role historically in many different religions. Interestingly, one of the earliest mentions of lemon in historical documents references its role in ancient Jewish rituals in which lemons were valued among Jewish people. They would be offered to God or gifted to the high priest of a temple during harvest time to ensure a good crop (6). Unblemished citrus fruits such as lemons and etrogs were grown by Jewish people during their seven-day harvest festival, Sukkos (6). During biblical times, the harvest festival was considered to be one of the most important holidays of the year (6).
In India, lemons were considered to be valuable and would be offered to different deities to earn their favour. In some regions of India, such as Tamil Nadu, people would even offer lemons to statues of deities by spiking lemons onto the spear that the statue was holding (9)! In addition, lemon essential oil was often used in various types of spiritual healing, as lemon essential oil was believed to cleanse the body of impurities and to help the flow of positive energy throughout the chakras in the body (9). Similarly, ancient Chinese doctors believed that lemon oil supported the flow of chi in certain parts of the body, such as the spleen (1).
After lemons were brought to Europe by Crusaders, they were soon incorporated into Western religions as well. In Catholicism, lemon trees represented fidelity in love (14). This was particularly important in Medieval and Renaissance Europe because most of the population could not read, so the clergy would teach moralistic values to the common-folk through imagery (14). So whenever people saw the picture of a lemon tree in a church or even on the street, they were reminded to be faithful to their spouse!
Along with having roles in different religions, lemon had different types of social significance throughout history as well. In some societies, lemons acted as a symbol of status and wealth. In Rome, China and Egypt, lemons were considered to be a valuable luxury, and the most elite households would decorate their homes and gardens with lemon trees as a way to display their wealth to their visitors (3). Lemons were so valuable to ancient Romans that they were even depicted in Roman art! In places such as Pompeii, where the influential elite of ancient Rome often congregated, archaeologists have found depictions of lemon trees in the mosaics of elite houses (3).
Another cultural role that lemons have played throughout history is as the keeper of secrets. As early as the 5th century BCE, lemon juice was being used by the Greeks and Persians during times of war to create invisible ink (3). The lemon juice-based invisible ink would then be used by generals and spies to transmit sensitive information that they didn’t want their enemies to know. As lemons became more popular in Arabic countries during the 9th century, the Arabs became adept at creating a specialised type of invisible ink using lemon juice and egg yolk (3). Later on, Renaissance Italians would often use a type of lemon juice-based ink to hide their political secrets or facilitate sensitive correspondence (3). This ink was said to be invisible during the day but would “glow like fire” in the dark (3). Centuries later, American spies would use lemon-based invisible ink during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War to pass on intelligence (3). Invisible ink that was derived from lemon juice was also used by American and British soldiers during WWI and WWII (3).
Lemons also played an important role in the economies of cultures throughout history. Although lemons were relatively rare in ancient Rome, lemons were so important in ancient Arabic countries and along the Mediterranean. Lemons were actually mentioned in a 10th century Arabic text on agriculture and growing valuable crops (3). Historical records indicate that lemons were a particularly popular commodity in Egypt, ancient Iraq, Spain, Italy and Morocco from 1000 AD to 1150 AD (3). They continued to be traded in these regions throughout the centuries but also became more popular in other regions of Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Later on, lemons became a large part of American economy. During the 18th century, farmers found that lemon trees could thrive in states with more tropical climates, such as Florida and California (2). As a result, lemon groves soon began popping up in these parts of the country. To this day, the distribution of lemons still makes up a sizable portion of the economy in these states (2).
When Life Gives You Lemons
Aside from its cultural and medicinal uses, lemons and lemon oil has had practical uses throughout history as well. In ancient Egypt, lemon oil was actually used to embalm the dead, and was said to help slow the decay of the body and to help them smell better (3). In ancient Greece, lemon juice and lemon oil was used to help preserve food, particularly meat, and to sanitise water to make it drinkable (3). Ancient Romans would utilise the insecticide properties of lemon oil and would dab it on their clothing to protect the fabric from being eaten by moths (3).
Undoubtedly, lemons and lemon oil have been used for a variety of purposes throughout human history, from food and drink to beauty and medicine. Whether it’s to fill our bellies with good food or to heal our bodies of illnesses, this bright yellow fruit has played an important role for people throughout time and will likely continue to do so in the future!
Lemon Essential Oil at Young Living
With its bright and joyful aroma, Lemon essential oil benefits skin and hair as much as its aroma enhances your environment. This best-selling oil can be used in a variety of ways: Mix it with your cleaning products, use it during your night-time skin care routine or add a drop to your conditioner for a great scent. This oil is a key ingredient in many hair and skin care products, Thieves® cleaning products, and essential oil blends such as Thieves®, Citrus Fresh®, Clarity, Joy and Harmony. Because citrus oil can cause photosensitivity, avoid applying Lemon to exposed skin before spending time outside.
Thousands of years ago till now, lemon has had a global influence. Learn more about Lemon oil and its use at Young Living here.Shop Lemon Oil
- Morton, J. 1987. Lemon. p. 160–168. In: Fruits of warm climates. Julia F. Morton, Miami, FL.
- Usvat, Liliana. “Lemon Tree Medicinal Uses”.
- Rupp, Rebecca. “How Lemons Helped Defeat Napoleon”.
- "Eisler, Melissa. “The Health Benefits of Drinking Lemon Water”"
- American Society for Horticultural Science. "Genetic origin of cultivated citrus determined: Researchers find evidence of origins of orange, lime, lemon, grapefruit, other citrus species." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 January 2011
- Holland, Brynn. “How Citrus Fruits Became an Ancient Status Symbol”
- Long, April, 2010. “The History of Beauty”