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Tropical Pick

When is a lemon not a lemon? When it’s huge and called ‘Buddha’s Hand’!

p4Nature can be pretty weird sometimes. And, when Charles Darwin penned his revolutionary ‘On the Origin of Species’, exactly 150 years ago, I wonder if he ever considered what the ordinary people might have made of it all. Moths that changed their colour almost overnight. (“Don’t be silly!”) Giant lizards that didn’t change anything for thousands of years. (“There be monsters!”) And plants – take plants, for example. The ones with lots of seeds thrive. And the ones that can find clever ways of spreading their seeds far and wide are even ... erm ... thrivier. And, if you’re a plant and your seeds are lighter than air and flutter for miles on the faintest breeze, then good for you. Or, if you’ve got spiky seeds that stick to migrating elks and hang on for half a continent, then even better still. Wondrous ways, indeed. Which brings us – almost – to lemons.

One certain way for a plant to survive is to Taste Really Good. That way your fruits, complete with lots of seeds, get carted away for miles to be enjoyed. Like oranges, for example. But the origins of the citrus family are truly obscure. The earliest references are in ancient Sumerian texts dating back to 3,000 years before Christ, placing their home somewhere in Southern Asia. A thousand years later, the Egyptians enjoyed and traded them. And, then, later still, the Romans followed suit and spread them all around the known world. But, over the last 4,000 years, things have evolved a bit. And, today, the orange, the grapefruit, the lime and the lemon have spread sideways into a family that’s spawned some truly gruesome relatives – the sort you keep locked away in the cellar.

Of course, there are other ways to cement your survival – especially if you’re a lemon, that is. One way is to taste so harsh and nasty as to ensure that everyone drops you and runs away wincing, chewing their lips and leaving you well alone. That seems to work. And another way – and this is a very recent ‘Darwinism’ – is to be so really strange and malformed that all the rest of the world goes, “Aah. Poor little minority lemon. We must make room for you in our tolerant society.” And so it’s come about that another law of evolution has emerged – collectability. Which is the reason that, not only have some gnarled, twisted and deformed members of the citrus family survived, but they are currently being lovingly pampered and propagated in hothouses all over the Western World.

And if the lumpy and knotted Citrus Medica is the keep-it-in-the-belfry Quasimodo of this perverted branch of the citrus family, then the Buddha’s Hand is the more socially acceptable younger cousin. That is to say – the one with the just a few webbed fingers and not all those horrible humps.

Citrus Medica Sarcodactylus is the name on its birth certificate – but ‘Buddha’s Hand’ is what it mostly answers to. And it’s quite chummy, really, even if it does take a bit of caring for. Like most of its family, it begins life as a delicate small tree. And, by the time the stem is about two feet tall, it puts out sweet and fragrant blooms – all OK so far. The flowers fade and the fruits begin to grow. But at this point it becomes a bit like the Elephant Man – left alone it would fall over and crush itself. Because, on this waif-like stalk, a giant yellow lump appears. And by the time it’s as big as an apple it’s bending the tree – which means lots of extra added sticks and canes and supports. Because this wobbly lemon keeps on going until it’s as big as a pumpkin.

If the truth be stated, as lemons go, then, once upon a time it would have been deemed ‘retarded’. Today, it’s probably more correct to describe it as ‘juicily disadvantaged’. Whereas all the happy, bouncy, well-adjusted little lemons and limes cheerfully end up gainfully employed on the side of your dinner plate or in slices on your cocktail glass, this one just sits there with a huge and silly smile. You see, the problem is that this lemon has got no juice. It’s one sack short of a segment. It’s got no vesicles. It might have lots and lots of ‘fingers’ – looking like a cross between an over-curried squid and one of those big, waggly poly-foam hands you see at football matches – but if you squeeze it, nothing happens. It is, in fact, totally composed of pith.

But this is not so bad – especially if you’re a lemon with a disadvantage. It’s found acceptable niches in many countries and across lots of social levels, and it’s indigenously popular throughout South East Asia. In China they’ve dubbed it fu shou; in Japan, bushukon; in Vietnam phât tu; and in Indonesia, djerook tangan. And, if you want one in Thailand, you’ll have to ask for som-mu. And, across the board, its main employment is that it’s highly fragrant – and it figures universally on temple altars.

But there’s more. Not having juice, there’s a higher concentration of citronella oil. And, in Roman times, this lemon was called the etrog; it was valued for its ability to allay sea-sickness and digestive disorders. Roman galleys carried Buddha’s Hand everywhere they went, and were mainly responsible for its worldwide spread and survival.

And, today, it flourishes in Germany, England, America, Italy, Australia – it’s sought-after everywhere. It’s being grown with tender loving care. If the climate isn’t favourable, then it’s in a hothouse, and the fruits are later out on display. It’s not only a conversation piece, but it smells sweet, too. It’s a great big bunch of bananas masquerading as a lemon. It’s huge, it’s strange and it’s lovable. And that, Mr. Darwin, is another factor to add to your thesis. It’s not only about the survival of the fittest – the cute ones seem to do pretty well, too, too!


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