Requiem for a lemon

Pub date February 20, 2008

The city slicker’s agricultural portfolio tends to run toward seasonings and emendations — rosemary, for instance, which has plenty of street smarts and is drought resistant too. Yours truly has for years managed a tiny estate of such bit players, including the aforementioned rosemary (a weedlike presence at the rear of the garden), along with bay and Kaffir lime bushes. The one crop that might qualify as cash is the Meyer lemon.

The infrequency of the (dwarf) Meyer lemon tree’s deigning to fruit has long added piquancy to those moments when it does, usually every other year. This year was to be one such moment; the flowers were heavy last summer, the immature fruit abundant all through the autumn, and by Christmastime a wealth of golden globes hung like ornaments from the tree’s branches. Tree is an absurd word to describe a shapeless shrub about three feet tall that drags its knuckles on the ground, but when such a plant produces three or four dozen fruit in one of its fecund moods, one is inclined to be forgiving.

Such plans I had for those lemons! Crème caramels were envisioned, also tarts, estate-bottled limoncello, and wonderful salad dressings. All in good time. Let the lemons remain safe on the tree; I would simply gather them as needed so they would not languish on the counter or in the refrigerator like supermarket produce. The city-slicker farmer, you see, has no conception of pests, and tales of whole harvests lost to plagues of locusts belong to the pages of the Bible or John Steinbeck novels.

So it was with a sense of horror and disbelief that I gazed out the window at my lemony riches a few days ago, at the end of weeks of obscuring rain, and saw that those riches were gone. Had they been stolen? Organic Meyer lemons would fetch a pretty penny at markets. But no: a close examination revealed the lemons had been eaten on the spot; the ground was scattered with shavings of rind. Templeton, the gregarious rat from Charlotte’s Web, bragged that he would eat anything — but lemons? Do skunks eat lemons? Raccoons? All the neighbors’ lemons similarly vanished.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may was the advice of the English poet Robert Herrick, and even if your rosebuds are lemons, this remains a wise strategy.