In The Gar­den

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Mark Grif­fiths Mark Grif­fiths is ed­i­tor of the New Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural Society Dic­tionary of Gar­den­ing

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

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