Meyer Lemon vs. Improved Meyer Lemon: What’s the difference?

If you’ve at all pondered or researched purchasing a lemon tree, you might have come across the variety “Improved Meyer lemon.” You then probably wondered, “what’s the difference between a Meyer lemon and an Improved Meyer lemon?”

While it might initially seem like there are two varieties of Meyer lemon trees available, the Meyer lemon and Improved Meyer lemon, this is not really the case. Nowadays, all Meyer lemon trees for sale in the US should be Improved Meyer lemons, even if they are not explicitly labeled or marketed as such.

The Improved Meyer lemon is a strand of Meyer lemon that was developed in the 1940s to be resistant to a fatal kind of citrus disease. Apart from this, there is no difference between the Improved Meyer lemon variety, and the old Meyer lemon variety.

Read on to find out more about why and how the “Improved Meyer lemon” came to be.

Characteristics of the Meyer Lemon

Identified by Frank Meyer in the early 1900s and thought to be the cross of a lemon and a mandarin, the Meyer lemon has a rich history and has become a beloved feature of many gardens and kitchens across the world.

The fruit of a Meyer lemon tree is rounder, and its skin bears a warmer, yellow-orange color than that of a true lemon. Thought to be the cross of a lemon and mandarin orange, the Meyer lemon is a slightly sweeter and less acidic sister to the common supermarket Lisbon and Eureka lemons. The skin of a Meyer lemon is also softer and thinner than that of a common lemon.

Native to China, the Meyer lemon tree is bushy and thorn-less, and considered a semi-dwarf variety, making it favorable for container or backyard gardening. The Meyer lemon tree is also more resistant to both heat and cold damage than the common lemon tree, which makes it a favorable variety for its adaptability to the edges of the lemon tree growing zones.

Frank Meyer’s Discovery

The “discovery” of the Meyer lemon and its introduction to the United States is largely credited to a man named Frank N. Meyer. While wandering the globe as a botanical explorer for the US Department of Agriculture, Frank Meyer came across the lemon tree in small village near Beijing, China, where it was commonly kept as an ornamental tree on patios and porches. After cutting open a fruit and sampling its impressive and tart yet sweet flavor, Meyer sent cuttings back to the US, where botanists began to cultivate the tree in California.

The Meyer lemon had a slow climb to widespread recognition in the US, primarily due to the fact that its thinner skin made it more difficult to ship and sell at markets before spoiling. Nevertheless, after first finding favor with choosy chefs, the Meyer lemon’s distinctive flavor slowly won over the taste buds and hearts of many Americans.

Citrus Disease & the Introduction of the Improved Meyer Lemon

By the mid-1900s, Meyer lemon trees were becoming popular and widely grown in California and other parts of the States. However, during this time, millions of lemon trees were dying from a ruthless outbreak of citrus disease, citrus tristeza. It was discovered that most Meyer lemons being grown were symptomless carriers of this fatal kind of citrus disease. This disease was being passed from Meyer lemons along to other varieties of lemons and was causing a crisis in the lemon industry.

In response to this desperate crisis and after much research, a strand of Meyer lemon tree was discovered that was resistant to citrus tristeza. This strand was dubbed the “Improved Meyer lemon” and was released for propagation, while all other Meyer lemons being grown were destroyed in an effort to save other lemon trees.

The Improved Meyer Lemon Today

Today in the United States, all Meyer lemons being sold should be the “Improved” Meyer lemon variety, whether or not they are advertised as such.

With the exception of being immune to citrus tristeza, the Improved Meyer lemon tree has no differences from that of the old Meyer lemon variety. You have no reason to shy away from a Meyer lemon tree label as “Improved,” as the Improved Meyer lemon has all of the beloved characteristics that you would expect from a Meyer lemon. From the fragrant and sweeter fruit, to the softer, deeply golden skin, your Improved Meyer lemon will delight you from garden to kitchen.

While the distribution of the Meyer lemon has been historically hindered by its thinner skin, advancements in shipping today might surprisingly grace you with the presence of Meyer lemons in your local market on chance occasion, even if you don’t live in the subtropical locale of sunny California or Florida. This is more likely during peak Meyer lemon harvest seasons of winter and spring.

You don’t have to wait for the unpredictable occasion of Meyer lemons showing up at your local market, however, if you decide to grow your own! The Meyer lemon is a surprisingly forgiving and rewarding houseplant, provided it receives enough light and the proper amount of irrigation. Check out other articles on this site for resources on growing your own Meyer lemon tree.

The Meyer Lemon is Your New Favorite Flavor the Kitchen

While Meyer lemons are sweeter than the traditional lemon, they are still a bit tart to eat outright as one would graze on an orange or a grapefruit. That said, Meyer lemons lend dynamic flavor to many recipes, both sweet and savory. Enjoy the Meyer lemon as a prominent addition to an Italian lemon, garlic, pasta dish, or as a punchy, leading flavor in a batch of decadent, buttery lemon bars. Any recipe you might use the common lemon for would be enhanced by the substitution of a Meyer lemon. The Meyer lemon also makes an incredible lemonade. The options in the kitchen for the distinguished Meyer lemon are as limitless as your imagination.

Keep in mind, that while the “Improved Meyer lemon” is resistant to the citrus disease that was causing such a disruption in the cultivation of lemon crops in the 1940s, the Improved Meyer lemon is not immune to all diseases. Take care to note abnormal changes in your plant’s appearance, such as the yellowing or curling of leaves, and to appropriately treat it for pests or other afflictions.

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