Symposium “Plants in Health and Culture”

D.J. Mabberley (Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney): Hesperides to Lemon-Aids: the ethnobotany of Citrus.


The genus Citrus provides the most significant industry based on tropical fruit: it is an important component in the economies of many countries including Australia, USA, Brazil, Israel and southern Europe. Besides in the form of fresh fruit and juice, Citrus is important in many products including flavourings and, increasingly, medicine.

The characteristic fruit of Citrus is termed a hesperidium, referring to the classical apples of the Hesperides (though these were not Citrus!). A narrative of the development of Citrus fruits in the East and their introduction to the West is presented. Particularly stressed are oranges and lemons and their integration into Islamic and then Western horticulture, iconography and language. It is explained that recent DNA work has shown that both are ancient hybrids. Their parentage is discussed in an overall survey of the genus Citrus, which is richest in species in by hybridization and apomixis.

The economic botany of the genus is outlined with particular reference to medical conditions, classically in the West in the  treatment of scurvy, but also its folk use in the tropics, investigation of which has lately led to the promotion of its use in contraception and in the LemonAids programme.

Like oranges and lemons, almost all commercial Citrus cultivars have a hybrid origin. The status of the putative 'wild' species is addressed, particularly with regard to conservation of genetic resources.