by Lacey Griebeler, Chef Magazine

Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in sunny California offer the ideal climate for growing citrus trees, like Citrus limon (lemon), year-round. In fact, 95 percent of U.S.-grown lemons come from California. It's not often this area is faced with temperatures below 28°F for 12 hours or more, the conditions that can cause damage to lemon trees. But in mid-January 2007, these counties faced several days of record below-freezing temperatures. Citrus growers scrambled to protect their crops from the 22°-23°F weather and frost damage by using heated drip irrigation water to warm up tree roots and wind machines (photo, left) to push warmer air in the atmosphere down to the plants. The damage, however, was unavoidable with such low temperatures. Growers lost two-thirds of their lemon crops that year as well as some of their trees, which take five years in the field before bearing fruit. The frost damage done to the tree roots also affected the 2008 crops, with yields posted one-third less than a normal harvest. As a result, the price of lemons skyrocketed.

Luckily, California lemon trees are expected to return normal yields this year. That's good news for a chef's bottom line and, of course, the menu. Beyond the fruit's menuing versatility and flavor-boosting powers, lemons are also a great element in creating healthier dishes and can take the place of extra sodium or fat. For recipe ideas, visit

I had the pleasure of visiting the 80-acre, Santa Paula lemon grove of Richard Pidduck, a member of the Sunkist Growers cooperative. Some of the images I snapped on the tour are below.

The lemon trees in the foreground are only a few years old, while the ones in the background are closer to 20. It takes a lemon tree five years of growth before it starts to bear fruit. Younger trees produce more fruit than the older trees, according grower Richard Pidduck, which means it's important to continually rotate in new trees.Sunkist cooperative grower Richard Pidduck explains that lemons grow on the outer and inner branches of the tree. While there is no difference in taste, lemons on the inner branches tend to be aesthetically nicer than ones on the outer branches, which are more susceptible to wind damage (thin brown scars) and insects. By the way, did you know that wind and insect damage is most often done when the lemons are very small (around the size of a large olive)?
Look closely at the outer part of this fruit, and you'll see that the lemon is still green in some areas. The inside, however, is ripe enough to eat or cook with. The flavor is slightly sweeter than a fully cured yellow lemon. According to Sunkist, lemons ripen well off the tree, and the benefit is the fruits last longer. A bright yellow lemon will only last a few days, while a whitish yellow lemon (even with some green areas) can last for several weeks. The ideal temperature for storing lemons is 45° to 48°F.
Those may look like limes, but they are in fact young, unripened lemons.
Because lemon trees can grow year-round in California, I was able to see a lemon blossom in January! The smell is floral, fruity and refreshing (much like an orange blossom). Once the fruit develops, the blossom will fall off the tree.

The lemon grove tour was sponsored by Sunkist, who also hosted a lemon interactive cooking demonstration and dinner with Robert Danhi, foodservice culinary consultant and cookbook author, and celebrity chef Jill Davie. The images below were taken by Jeff Lewis.

Chefs Danhi and Davie talk about lemons and their infinite uses in cuisine.
Chef Danhi presents a plate of bacon-wrapped shrimp with a lemon-Greek yogurt dipping sauce.Chef Davie whisks whole goat milk with lemon juice to make goat cheese.Chef Danhi's Thai-style Sunkist Lemon and Coconut Bites, with roasted peanuts, dried shrimp, Thai bird chile, ginger and shallot, wrapped in collard greens

What is your favorite use for lemons? Post it in the comments section.