When & How Often You Can Expect a Harvest
If the first word that comes to mind when you hear the words “key lime” is “pie,” you’re not alone. The famous American pie owes its unique flavor to the tart, fragrant fruit that’s become common throughout the Florida Keys.
But key limes are good for more than just pie: in addition to lime-based desserts, their distinctive flavor makes them a prized ingredient in tropical marinades, cocktails and syrups. Key lime also makes the best limeade, and serves as a beautiful garnish for main dishes and drinks.
There are several differences between a key lime and the more common Persian lime. Besides being less acidic than their Persian cousins, key limes are smaller, rounder, seedier, have a thinner skin, and tend to be yellower in color than the bright green Persian lime. They also tend to be more expensive and a little more difficult to find, which is why many commercial “key lime” desserts are actually made with the more conventional Persian lime. If you’re determined to hold out for the real thing, though, don’t despair – growing your own Mexican key limes can be easier than you think!
What Does a Key Lime Tree Look Like?
A key lime tree can be a striking addition to any garden. An attractive evergreen with deep green leaves, fragrant white flowers, and golf ball-sized, yellow-green fruit, key lime trees grow to be at least six fee tall.
Like the Meyer lemon, key lime trees do have thorns, though they may outgrow them over time. It is possible to have a thornless key lime tree, though – dwarf key lime trees, which can be grown in containers and are an excellent choice for would-be gardeners in growing zones colder than Zone 9, come in thornless varieties.
How Big Do Key Lime Trees Get?
A standard key lime tree grown outdoors could take up as much as thirteen feet of vertical space, but a dwarf key lime tree will only grow to about two feet tall. A key lime cocktail tree and Meyer lemon tree are excellent additions to a sunroom or other sunny spot in your home (your dwarf key lime tree will need about ten hours of direct sunlight each day, and can be moved to the patio when the weather is warm to help it keep producing).
Make sure you become well-versed on key lime tree care before you go this route – among other things, key limes need to be watered constantly when grown in containers to keep the soil moist. When the water drains out of the drainage hole in the container, it also depletes nutrients from the soil, so feeding the dwarf citrus tree is a must. But it’s definitely worth the extra effort – in addition to adding tropical flair to your home and a refreshing citrus scent, you’ll get juicy limes with fewer seeds than their outdoor cousins!
When Are Key Limes Ready to Pick?
After reaching its full height, a dwarf key lime trees will begin to bear fruit in about 1-3 years. The tree flowers in the spring, with fruit following in late spring to early summer (if the flowers fall off without bearing fruit, that means your tree is not yet mature enough to bear fruit).
So…when do you actually harvest the limes? When limes are fully ripe, they actually turn yellow. Persian limes and other lime varieties become bitter when they are fully ripe, and are best harvested when still fully green. Key limes should not be allowed to become fully yellow, either, but can remain on the tree a bit longer than conventional limes, as this will result in sweeter fruit. Don’t wait too long, though – you don’t want to lose that distinctive tart flavor in your favorite recipes!
With a little care and attention, you’ll have a lovely tree to enjoy looking at and delicious fruit to use and share for years to come.