Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Fragrant Fruit

A few days ago I bought some citrons of the 'Etrog' variety, which I have previously talked about here. Relatively little known today, citrons (Citrus medica) were probably among the earliest citrus fruit to be cultivated and held considerable cultural and economic importance in various part of the world throughout history. They are appreciated as an aromatic for their wonderful scent - the reason I am now keeping mine in a bowl on our dining room table - and as the source of succade used in baking and confectionery. The fragrance of the ripe fruit is strong; it wafts far enough that I randomly catch whiffs of it as I walk through the apartment. It is also quite distinctive: citrusy, but much sweeter than that of lemons and lime, almost floral.

 'Etrog' citrons

As with many species of citrus, it is unclear where exactly the citron originates, but it likely hails from somewhere in South or Southeast Asia. It has been cultivated on the Indian Subcontinent since antiquity, and is probably the most prominent type of citrus in Sanskrit literature. The scholar of Sanskrit and South Asian religions James McHugh writes the following about it in his magisterial Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture:

"This is the fruit of Citrus medica L. This is a large fruit known as a "citron" (cédrat in French), and it is the same fruit known as the etrog used in the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. This fruit was probably far more culturally prominent in the ancient world than today, no doubt as an important source of citrus scent prior to the ubiquity of oranges, lemons, and other fruit. The citron is somewhat like a large lemon with thick pithy skin, scant internal flesh, and many seeds. The peel (tvac) of this fruit has a lemony citrus fragrance and was used as a mouth freshener. It is mentioned as such in the Kāmasūtra where citron peels (mātuluṅgatvacas) are said to be part of the ideal man-about-town's domestic paraphernalia. As well as the mātuluṅga, it is also known as bījapūra, "full of seeds," and it is a common element in certain iconographies, for example, Jaina sculptures of yakṣīs. A stylized and elongated version of the same fruit is held by the female attendants who adorn the famous Hoysala temple of Somnathpur near Mysore. On these elongated fruits, the knobbles and ridges that are found on some citron varieties are carved in a very regular manner (as is the case for stouter depictions carried by Jain yakṣīs), and the fruit, therefore, somewhat resembles a rather pointy, dehusked ear of maize. On the basis of these sculptures, it has been mistakenly suggested that maize was present in India prior to its introduction from the New World. The great irony of this claim is that it obscures the significance of South Asia as the origin of many citrus species." (McHugh 68-69)

A medieval Sanskrit tree cultivation manually prosaically entitled Vṛkṣādīnāṃ ropaṇādiprakaraṇa or "The manner of planting, etc., for trees, etc."  devotes three verses to the care of the citron, more than it dedicates to most other garden trees of classical India:


शृगालमीनखण्डे तु मूले दत्ते सुवेगतः।
बीजपूरी फला दुग्धगुडमांसजलोक्षिता।।

पिण्याकमदिराबीजमत्स्याखुपललेन च।
सिद्धेन वारिणा युक्ता बीजपूरी बृहत्फला।।


ṛgālamīnakhaḍe tu mūle datte suvegata
bījapūrī phalā dugdhaguḍaṃsajalokṣitā

piṇyākamadirābījamatsyākhupalalena ca
siddhena vāriṇā yuktā bījapūrī bṛhatphalā

 Watered with water mixed with sesame meal and meat of mice, fish, and hog
The citron shall be bending under a wealth of many heavy fruits.

   And when given pieces of jackal and fish at the root and watered with milk with palm sugar and meat
The citron will rapidly fruit.

And treated with a perfected paste of asafoetida, liquor, marrow, fish, and mice,
 Along with water,  the citron bears huge fruit.

Whether this cultivation advice is to be taken at face value I will leave open to debate for now, but I will definitely plant some of the seeds from these citrons when they no longer look nice enough for the dining room table and see what will grow.

McHugh, James. Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2012.  
Sureśvara. Vṛkṣāyurveda: Das Wissen von der Lebensspanne der Bäume. Rahul Peter Das, trans. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1988.


  1. What an interesting fruit! I always learn such cool stuff from your posts. Thanks.

    1. Yay! I am always happy when the inevitable convergences of my plant obsessions and my academic is of interest to anyone else... :)

  2. What a cool fruit, I love its bumpy texture. I remember eating fruit cake in my childhood that had candied citron in it (I didn't much like it), but never realized what it was.

    1. They are pretty, are they not? And the scent really is wonderful. I am not generally a great fan of the candied peel either, though it is often used in German Christstollen which I have always loved - somehow in that it is inoffensive.

  3. Die Zitronen sehen sehr dickfleischig aus. Haben sie viel Saft?
    Ich finde exotische, mir unbekannte Früchte immer sehr interessant.
    Gruß, Anette

    1. Nein, sonderlich saftig sind diese Zitronatzitronen nicht, aber die Schalen sind das Ausgangsmaterial fuer Zitronat. Mir geht es was exotische Fruechte betrifft genauso... und meistens muss ich dann erstmal ausprobieren, ob ich aus ihnen Pflanzen ziehen kann.

  4. Interesting! We use to call it as Jeruk Sukade. I remember that my friend picked a huge citron several years ago from his garden and he didn't know how to use it.

    1. Cool! In German it is called "Zitronatzitrone", which literally means "succade lemon".


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