By Barbara Perry Lawton
Citrus plants are wonderful houseplants! Not only do they have regular flushes of creamy white flowers with a hauntingly sweet fragrance, they also reliably provide fruits that make tasty marmalades. Citrus plants have been grown in containers for centuries in Europe – they should be grown more in our country.
Citrus plants have tough, glossy, dark green leaves. Even without flowers, these are handsome plants. Many kinds are good prospects for sunny sites in your home. In addition to oranges, lemons and kumquats, you may find limes, grapefruits and tangerines in your favorite garden center. Look for dwarf varieties.
There are a number of different kinds of citrus plants you may be able to find in garden centers. They are easy to grow under home conditions. The following are most often recommended for indoor gardening:
- Meyer Lemon (Citrus limonia meyeri). Of all the citrus varieties for home growing, the Meyer lemons grow the fastest and are notoriously easy to grow in containers. Meyer lemons produce thin-skinned fruit that are large and less acid than ordinary lemons – they are, in fact, quite tasty. Most varieties are ever-bearing. Size estimates range to several feet in height.
- Calamondin Orange (Citrus mitis). This compact citrus bears fruits that are about the size of quarters. They are not very sweet but they do make a wonderful marmalade as do the other citrus fruits. Although some sources report that this citrus grows only two to three feet tall, I have seen some that are said to be Calamondins that grow six to eight feet in height. Most commonly found in garden centers, this plant makes a great patio accent for summers outdoors and responds well to clipping.
Although the above two are most commonly grown indoors, look for other lemon species, limes, kumquats and tangerines. Limes are quite thorny which may be a factor for some household situations – they also are very tender, hardy only to 32°F. Kumquats are great producers of small orange-like fruit that is eaten in toto, peel and all. Kumquats are beautifully ornamental and most hardy of the citruses (18°F). There also are tangerines that are container-grown and bear edible fruit.
To perform at their best, citrus plants must have four hours or more of direct sun each day. In summer months when your citruses are outdoors protect them from the strongest hours of our summer sun – a sunny location that gets afternoon shade would be ideal. Night temperatures not below 50 to 55 and day temperatures of 68 to 72°F are good guidelines to follow.
Beware of overwatering. Let the soil dry to the touch before watering and do not let citruses stand in saucer water. A moisture meter can be of great help in knowing when to water. Potting medium suitable for African violets, slightly acid, will suit citruses. Fertilize in early spring, early summer and late summer unless you use a pelletized slow-release fertilizer, in which case, just throw a handful of pellets in the pot in early spring.
As to pests, watch for sucking insects such as scale, mealy bug, white fly or spider mites. Catch these problems early and control with insecticidal soap or ultra-fine horticultural oil. As always, follow the directions.
Although it’s fun and possible to grow citrus from the seeds you find in breakfast fruits, this process will not ordinarily result in fruits or flowers. The citrus plants you buy at garden centers are bred for container growing and have a long history of being compatible with home conditions.
You can propagate nursery-grown containerized citruses from cuttings. Take six-inch cuttings in late summer to early fall. Strip the leaves from the lower half of the cuttings and root them in damp sand. When the new plants double their size, pot them up in growing medium similar to the mother plant.
A Word of Warning
Many citrus plants want to be small trees, even those that are described as dwarf. To keep them under control for indoor sites, be sure to pinch back new growth on a regular basis or you may find yourself having to put a tower-like expansion on your home. New growth can be pruned at any time.
Barbara Perry Lawton is a writer, author, speaker and photographer. She has served as manager of publications for Missouri Botanical Garden and as weekly garden columnist for the St Louis Post-Dispatch. The author of a number of gardening and natural history books, and contributor to many periodicals, she has earned regional and national honors for her writing and photography. Barbara is also a Master Gardener and volunteers at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St Louis MO.