Lemon laws do not protect the consumer from purchasing unripe lemons, but perhaps they should. When you cut open one of these citrus fruits, you probably expect firm flesh and lots of juice, but knowing when to pick lemons can have a big impact on the results. So anything less spells culinary heartbreak. If you have your own lemon tree (Citrus limon), you can forestall disappointment by learning the secrets of picking ripe fruit.
Basics of Lemon Trees
A lemon tree in your backyard orchard ensures a ready supply of the juicy citrus. Various cultivars of lemon trees are hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 9 through 10. Some of those cultivars, including 'Eureka' (Citrus limon 'Eureka'), fill the tree with bright fruits almost year round. You can also grow dwarf lemon trees indoors that produce fruit when you pollinate the tree. Fruits aren't ripe until the color develops, but just because a lemon is a particular shade of yellow doesn't mean it's ripe.
Time to Maturity
All of those juicy lemons on your tree start as pollinated flowers. Lemons usually take four to nine months to ripen from the time the flower becomes pollinated. Most lemon varieties ripen in fall and winter, but some are ready earlier or produce lemons year-round. 'Eureka' lemons often ripen in spring and summer while 'Lisbon' (Citrus limon 'Lisbon') lemons are usually ripe from summer to fall.
Signs of Lemon Ripeness
If you pluck some other kinds of fruits from their trees before those fruits are ripe, it takes only a little patience until they ripen. The same maneuver with a lemon will buy you disappointment. Lemons ripen on the tree or not at all. So getting your harvest timing right to pick lemons is critical.
Ripe lemons are a brilliant shade of yellow or yellow-orange and have a shine to their skin, but they can appear yellow before they're ready to pick. Wrinkled or dull skin means that you waited too long; the fruits are past their prime.
Lemon Taste Test
All the eyeballing in the world isn't sufficient to identify a ripe lemon, however. You're better off taste-testing one fruit to judge the ripeness of the rest of the tree's lemons. Know what fruit you taste, though. Cultivars such as 'Eureka' and 'Lisbon' offer tart, juicy fruits at harvest time, while the lemons of the cultivar 'Meyer,' also called 'Meyer Improved' (Citrus meyeri and Citrus limon 'Meyer Improved'), are milder and sweeter.
How to Pick Lemons
Wearing cotton gloves when you pick lemons protects the rinds. Hold the lemon in your hand and twist it lightly as you pull it way from the branch. Using hand pruners to trim the stem from the lemon keeps it from poking the other lemons you harvest.
Lasting Lemon Pleasure
When your tree's lemons ripen, you may have more on your hands than you can possibly use. The best choice for storing the fruits is on the tree. Hard freezes, however, damage lemons. So pick all the ripe fruits if a bad weather system is expected.
Ripe fruits store well in a plastic bag in a refrigerator for one or two weeks, depending on the variety. 'Meyer' lemons don't last as long as more tart lemons. An alternative to storing lemons in a refrigerator is to juice the fruits and keep the juice in your freezer for future use.
From Alaska to California, from France's Basque Country to Mexico's Pacific Coast, Teo Spengler has dug the soil, planted seeds and helped trees, flowers and veggies thrive. A professional writer and consummate gardener, Spengler has written about home and garden for Gardening Know How, San Francisco Chronicle, Gardening Guide and Go Banking Rates. She earned a BA from U.C. Santa Cruz, a law degree from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall, and an MA and MFA from San Francisco State. She currently divides her life between San Francisco and southwestern France.