assorted citrus fruits assorted citrus fruits Where would we be without citrus? If not for a little thing called migration, those Southeast Asians would have kept all this delicious fruit to themselves. (Photo: Maria Uspenskaya / Shutterstock)

Lemons were only for the rich ... and other odd facts about the history of fruit

Citrus has come a long way from its Southeast Asian origins. But how did it get so spread out?

When life hands us lemons, not everyone turns them into lemonade; some of us turn them into royalty.

A new study led by Dr. Dafna Langgut, of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University in Israel, reveals fascinating findings about the migratory and symbolic history of citrus. One of Langgut's most notable discoveries is that lemons, though abundant and ubiquitous now, were actually rare in ancient Rome – and therefore prized by the elite and treated as a luxury.

"The contexts of the botanical remains, in relation to elite gardens, show that in antiquity, both citrus and lemon were products representing high social status," Langgut wrote in her research, which was published in the journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science.

How did she discover this sour note in history, you might ask? Well, it all started in a garden in Jerusalem, where Langgut commenced an archaeological dig. (They've been doing that a lot in Jerusalem lately, as you can see in the video below.)

Among her findings were ancient texts, art, seeds, murals and coins, as well as the botanical remains of fossil pollen grains, charcoals and other fruit remnants.

Combining her artifacts with the findings of previous studies, she gathered that the citron was the first citrus to arrive in the Mediterranean from Southeast Asia, between the late first century BCE and the early first century AD. A citron is similar to a lemon, but bigger and with a thicker rind. Actual lemons followed, but that was almost four centuries later.

citronsCitrons were the first citrus to arrive in the Mediterranean. (Photo: femme/Shutterstock)

And then, no less than 10 centuries passed before the Mediterranean region was introduced to other varieties of citrus, like sour orange and lime.

"This means that for more than a millennium, citron and lemon were the only citrus fruits known in the Mediterranean basin," Langgut said.

But why did ancient Romans believe lemons were a sign of wealth? Langgut's theory is that their healing properties, pleasant aroma and rarity led to the fruit's elite status.

But we're relieved that at some point, those pesky royals decided to let commoners have a taste. And then, once citrus became more common, we're guessing they moved on to other status symbols. Like jewelry, and shoes, and togas.

lemon cocktail with mintDespite its sour taste, life with lemons is somehow sweeter. (Photo: Liljam/Shutterstock)


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Related Topics: Archaeology, Healthy eating

Lemons were only for the rich ... and other odd facts about the history of fruit
A new study reveals how citrus migrated so far from its origins in Southeast Asia.