In The Garden
Mark Griffiths celebrates citrus
ONE sultry afternoon in 2001, I received a phone call from a friend. ‘It’s ready,’ he said. ‘Come now.’ Twenty minutes later, I was on his garden terrace. On a table before us were a bottle of Tanqueray Export Strength gin, running with condensation; a bucket of ice; a perfume atomiser, once property of a lady, but now filled with Noilly Prat; a cocktail shaker that, quite rightly, had never been shaken, only stirred; and a knife fitted not to making fiddly little twists, but to slicing plectrum-like patches of peel. ‘Shall I do the honours?’ asked my friend, whereupon, he approached a small tree that stood in a pot nearby and relieved it of its single burden and glory: a large and beautiful lemon.
It’s a perfectionist’s drink, the martini, and this one was perfect. I put it down to the lemon. Obviously, waiting weeks for it to ripen had heightened the pleasure, but there was also something about its ripeness, a succulent intensity perhaps only possible in an on/off English summer.
Its zest floated on the gin in luscious beads, not so much winking at the brim as purring ‘come hither’. A sip was enlightenment and anaesthesia.
I visited this lemon tree again just the other day. It’s currently in its winter quarters, a cool, bright room that it fills with the fragrance of its blossom. This is one of many Citrus specimens in Oxford that have been shipped from Italy since 2000 by Robert Moy (www.tuscanpots.co.uk), together with magnificent clay pots from Impruneta near Florence, which are ideal for lending them the look of treasures taken from some venerable palazzo or regal Rococo orangery.
Outside, its cousin the kumquat stays put. Also acquired from Mr Moy, this shapely little shrub has flourished in front of a southfacing wall for more than a decade with no more protection than a shroud of fleece in the coldest months. It’s as ceaselessly verdant as any laurel or camellia and it crops prodigally, furnishing the wherewithal for marmalade that’s sunshine concentrate even on the dreariest mornings. In return, it asks merely for repotting every few years (into the same large pot, in a well-drained, mildly acid loamy mix) and for generous doses of liquid feed in summer.
The kumquat (Citrus japonica) is the most palatable of several coldproof Far Eastern Citrus. Most have small, unfleshy and unbearably sharp fruit, but their durability has made them of interest to breeders—most notably to Walter T. Swingle (1871–1952), a botanist working for the US Department of Agriculture, who schooled himself to become the world expert on Citrus after frosts ruined the orange crop in California.
Looking to endow sweet oranges and grapefruit with hardiness, he crossed them with C. trifoliata (syn. Poncirus trifoliata), the most unflinching and inedible of all these Asiatic toughies (and a wonderful winter shrub with snaking green spiny branches). Respectively named Citrange and Citrumelo, the resulting hybrids won little praise for their fruit, but proved valuable as hardy rootstocks for more tender varieties.
Next, in about 1909, Swingle hybridised Citrange with kumquat, producing (you guessed it) Citrangequat. An excellent old selection of this cross is Thomasville: when fully ripe, its fruit is sapid and succulent enough for juicing, serving caramelised for pudding, making into marmalade and (for the sharp-toothed) eating fresh off the bush.
Recently, British gardeners have been experimenting with these cold-tolerant Citrus hybrids and declaring them fine evergreens, glorious in blossom and generous in fruit. They prefer a fleece wrapping in winter and a savage freeze might still carry them off. However, they are performing so reliably that they promise to become part of our plant repertoire for sunny terraces, courtyards and house walls.
The Citrus Centre in West Sussex (www.citruscentre.co.uk) offers a range of these hybrids. It also sells its tough Far Eastern precursors, among them Yuzu, which seems, quite literally, to be on everyone’s lips these days.
Yoko uses its fruit as she has done since childhood, sliced and set afloat in a hot bath, where its perfume and oil are wondrously therapeutic. It rather galls her that, in Western eyes, it’s become a signature of Japanese fare: ‘It’s too musky for our best cuisine.’ I tell her that’s nothing like as sacrilegious as the fashion for Yuzu martinis.
Citrus trifoliata (above) was crossed with C. japonica (right) to create hardier hybrids