The etrog was the pioneer. Other citrus trees came west long after the etrog or developed by cross-pollination from the citron and the few other original citrus varieties.
Every year in the days before Sukkot, Jews make an effort to obtain a nice etrog (Citrus medica), to fulfill the mitzvah of taking “the fruit of the beautiful tree” or “the beautiful fruit of the tree” along with a palm branch, and branches of myrtle and willow (Leviticus 23:40). Jews everywhere want the etrog, but the citron tree does not grow everywhere.
“Etrogim now grow wherever other citrus trees grow,” according to according to Asaf Avtabi, an agronomist who has retired after 40 years of with the Israeli Department of Agriculture, where he counseled orchardists in growing citrus trees, and especially the citron. Avtabi looks forward to the publication of an English translation of his book, The Etrog.
Even more than other citrus fruits, the etrog is sensitive to cold temperatures, but Avtabi reports that etrog trees do much better in hot countries. “I saw etrog groves in a climate of up to 50 degrees Celsius [122Farenheit], in completely healthy condition.”
Like other citrus trees, the citron originally grew only in some part of southeastern Asia. Starting in ancient times, orchardists brought citron trees farther and farther west, to Persia, then to the Middle East, and then to North Africa and southern Europe. Jews who celebrated Sukkot probably midwifed much of that migration. Erich Isaac, a professor of geography at Tulane University, wrote that “the spread of the citron through the Mediterranean coincided with the growth of Jewish communities in the Mediterranean Diaspora.”
The etrog was the pioneer. Other citrus trees came west long after the etrog or developed by cross-pollination from the citron and the few other original citrus varieties. The citron, though, has changed little over the centuries. The citron flower self-pollinates, so the fruit on a citron tree generally has not gained genetic material from other species. Over the centuries, orchardists have grown varieties of citrons with different external appearance (phenotype); however, Avtabi notes, “the greatest part of the genetic matter remains the original etrog.”
Now Etrog trees grow in central and southern Israel, and even in the relatively inhospitable Aravah desert, according to Avtabi. He adds that orchardists grow etrogim for use in Jewish ritual in the Greek Islands, in Morocco, and in Italy.
He notes that Jewish ritual forms only part of the story: Much of the world’s citron crop goes for fresh fruit, spices and industrial food production. Brazil, for example, grows a huge crop of citrons (according to Joshua Klein of the Volcani Institute in Israel), using them for food, primarily for marmalade, syrup and candied peel, often an ingredient in cakes. An old name for the candied peel, “succade,” might come from the Latin word for juicy, but might come from the Hebrew “Succah.”
Cut an etrog in half (after the holiday, please), and you will see that it has a thick white layer below the skin, and only a small volume of pulp and seeds. The etrog works well as candied fruit because this thick white layer, called albedo, does not taste bitter.
A Homegrown Etrog
But the etrog does not produce much juice, so Joe Lewis “used to regret each year paying for an etrog and not being able to use it.”
To get some use from his etrog after the holiday, Lewis decided to plant the seeds, and “after a while I had seedlings. I didn’t know if they’d grow, so I transferred them to individual pots, gave them water and light, and waited. Some time later, I had a couple of dozen seedlings, and I gave many of them to friends,” he said.
He continues the story: “Three of them grew pretty large, so I transferred them to bigger pots and kept them inside in winter and outside in summer. We used drip irrigation for our garden so watering the etrog plants was automatic, and thanks to the sun and the breezes they grew.
“By this time, they were 4 feet tall in half-bushel pots, and moving them was a nuisance (since they have quite a few spikes), but I only had to do it twice a year. Some branches died, but the trees continued to live. They even produced the occasional flower, which never produced fruit.
“Once in a while, a strong wind would blow them over, pots and all, but I just put them back and they kept going.
“Eventually we had a grow light inside the house, and this stimulated growth of leaves in winter, but no fruit.
Preparing to move from Oak Park to Detroit, Lewis and his wife Bobbie “gave our remaining trees to good homes … A plant is not a great gift, because the recipient may feel obliged to keep it alive and to give the donor periodic reports on its condition, but I don’t think we lost any friends by giving them etrog trees.”
One of those trees went to the Lewis’ daughter and son-in-law, Miriam and Dov Gardin, in New Jersey.
Miriam Gardin reports, “We do indeed have one of the early etrog trees my dad grew from seed and it has done spectacularly well (sometimes miraculously). We keep it outdoors during the summertime and it thrives!
“During the winter,” she says, “when it’s indoors, we often battle spider mites as the heaters dry out the air and it becomes more susceptible to infestation. I spray the leaves with a bit of dish soap mixed with tap water, and wipe them off to try to get as many mites as possibly before they even hatch . . . I have given the citrus tree fertilizer a few times.
“A few years ago, we saw three etrogim growing!” she reports One was stolen by a squirrel or other animal, one had a blemish from hanging down onto the soil as it grew larger, and the third was our etrog for Sukkot!”