Grow your own Key limes to get better tasting pies

Sunday, January 8, 2006

This time of year, a slice of Key lime pie is the next best thing to a trip to the Florida Keys. Okay, maybe not the next best thing, but good eating anyway.

But don't start your gustatory journey at the supermarket. Supermarkets sell mostly Persian limes, which lack the unique and potent aroma of genuine Key limes.

You probably suspect that I'm going to suggest growing your own Key limes. Do it, but watch out that what you get is a Key lime plant. Most lime plants sold also are Persian limes, usually the variety Bearss.

To find your Key lime plant, you should know its aliases (botanically, its Citrus aurantifolia). It has been called Mexican lime and West Indian lime. None of these aliases, even the name Key lime, is well-founded, because Key limes are native to India and Malaysia. They were widely planted in Florida after a hurricane wiped out pineapples there in 1906. Then another hurricane, in 1926, wiped out those Key lime trees, and the industry there has faltered ever since. If your slice of pie has indeed been made with real Key limes, the fruit most likely was grown in the Caribbean.

Unless, of course, you grow Key lime yourself -- not a difficult feat at all once you get a plant. Plants are available by mail-order. If you ever lay hands on a fresh Key lime fruit, you could also start a plant by sowing the seeds as soon as you get them out of the fruit. You will have to wait longer for your first pie with this method.

Once you have a tree, all you need is a flowerpot filled with any standard potting mix. With annual pruning of both branches and roots, you could keep the plant as small as a couple of feet high. Of course, larger plants yield more fruits and more pies.

Key lime revels in heat. Keep the tree in the sunniest window you have in winter, then move it outdoors to a sunny location in spring, once warm weather settles in. Move the plant back indoors in late summer.

Expect your first harvest within a couple of years of planting the tree. Allow the fruit to turn pale green or yellowish for full flavor, then squeeze away for your pie.

Too many fruits at once? Store them in a cool room in a plastic bag or under water, or make some juice, jam, jelly, or marmalade.

And don't waste the flavorful peel: chopped with coconut milk, it's a Javanese delicacy.

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