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What is a Lime?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The word “lime” is used to refer to a large group of green citrus fruits with a tart, intense flavor. All limes are in the citrus genus, and they appear to have originated in Southeast Asia, along with many other members of the citrus group. Limes are popular in many cuisines, such as Thai and Mexican food. They are also used to make mixed drinks, since the tart flavor often interacts well with alcohol. Most grocery stores sell limes, and pure lime juice is also available in many places.

A lime tree can vary in size, depending on the species. As a general rule, lime trees have aromatic, leathery green leaves and small clusters of richly scented white flowers. The fruits remain green when they mature, although some species such as the key lime acquire a yellowish tinge. Once harvested, limes can be kept under refrigeration for approximately 10 days, or they can be juiced so that the juice can be preserved.

The word for the fruit comes from the Arabic limah, which is related to “lemon.” Limes are also related to “limey,” the classic slang for “sailor.” The small fruits are packed with vitamin C, making them an excellent antiscorbutic. Sailors consumed the fruits while traveling to prevent the onset of scurvy, and the lime became closely associated with the seagoing life.

As with many members of the citrus family, limes are not very cold tolerant. They also need warm weather to ripen, and as a general rule lime trees are found only in tropical and subtropical areas of the world. They may be grown ornamentally in other regions such as temperate zones, as long as gardeners have access to a greenhouse. Under these less than optimal growing conditions, a lime tree may not yield fruit.

Many consumers are familiar with the Persian lime, Citrus latifolia, also known as a Tahiti lime or Bearss lime. The Persian lime is widely cultivated for commercial use, and has a more mild flavor and thicker rind. The thick rind helps to keep Persian limes stable through shipping and storage, making it a good choice for commercial cultivation. The smaller key lime is another popular variety, with a thin skin and an intense flavor which is very popular in key lime pie.

In Asian cuisine, especially in Thailand, many cooks use kaffir lime, Citrus hystrix. Kaffir limes have especially flavorful and aromatic leaves which are used in cooking along with the small fruits. There are an assortment of other lime cultivars, including the limequat, a cross between limes and kumquats.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By jabuka — On Jan 03, 2009

Limes can be stored at room temperature for a week and in the refrigerator in a plastic bag for up to three weeks.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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