Lemon trees in pots
Lemon trees in pots

Decorative lemon trees for your Algarve garden

We perhaps take for granted the commercial citrus plantations around us, but this family has great potential for ornamental and decorative contributions to our gardens.

Some are more able to cope with life in a container or large pot where it is possible to provide ideal soil and watering. Planning now will prepare you for the autumn planting season. Perhaps you will be tempted to emulate the collections of mediaeval Italy with their hugely diverse range of ornamental citrus that never left their pots – “like a tribe of babies who never left their prams”, according to Helena Attlee.

With the kumquats, the bitter orange, or Seville orange, is the most hardy of decorative citrus trees; beautiful dark green leaves transforming in the winter months with trees covered with orange fruit from December to March.

Pomelos are one of the most fascinating decorative citrus that can be grown in Portugal. Yet, the oldest decorative citrus variety with the greatest diversity in European nurseries is the citron (not always easy to grow) – and lemon trees whose fruit ripen later and stay longer on the tree. Late fruit is an advantage because it is less susceptible to the fruit fly. Here, we can grow decorative lemon trees outside.

Citrus medica
Citrus medica

Everything suggests that in Greco-Roman antiquity, presumably when the Romans invaded the Middle East and Egypt, the lemon tree became a decorative tree. Trees with spindle-shaped, upward-facing fruit are shown on frescoes in Pompei. It is not yet known what these lemons tasted like, whether they were sweet or sour. For it is only later, around the 10th century, that the lemon tree became a source of sour fruit juice.

The Salerno Medical School recommended using lemons against scurvy. The Republic of Amalfi, whose boats made the long journey to Byzantium, ensured the use of lemons was mandatory on its ships. The southern coast of Italy and the Tunisian coast became covered with lemon groves. From these primitive plantations, there remain to this day remarkable lemons, “Limone di Rocca Imperiale” (an aromatic bomb) and “del Gargano”. Presumably the same plantations existed with the Byzantines.

Lemon pergola
Lemon pergola

The lemon is a citrus fruit that comes true from seed. Mutations that allow selection of new varieties, often with small singularities, are either micro-mutations on the tree or rare inter-breeding. It is likely that the increase in use of lemon trees for sour juice caused a renewal of interest in the decorative lemon trees in the Near East and in Egypt, where it has been used in cooking since the 13th century for its juice and for confit in brine.

These trees tend to stay small and respond well to pruning. You can either trim them in geometric shapes or prune to encourage the horizontal branches as in Japan, or as in Italy, to create an espalier 30cm from a wall, or again, as the Neapolitans do, use them as a pergola tree.

You should always remove the upright suckers (that grow on the structural branches) throughout the growing season. These greedy branches don’t bear fruit and unnecessarily weaken the tree. An infestation of cochineal can result from being too close to a wall so give the tree space and air.


Decorative lemons, like all citrus, do not like the wind, especially not a cold wind, but they don’t like to stifle either – they need air circulation, so always leave a good space between a wall and the tree.

 Among the strong fruiting varieties that are now used in cooking, you can find the Chinese “Meyer” variety and the American “Ponderosa” with very large sour juicy fruit. Cultivars with very large fruit include the “Lipo”, the “Nine-Pounder”, “Borneo”, “Amalfitano” – an ornamental with enormous fruit – and, among the citron hybrids, the Moroccan lemon “Bitrouni”.

Here are a few original and pretty varieties: the variegated varieties, the ridged varieties (such as the “Canaliculata”), the piriform, the digitated, the grainy skinned (such as “Spatafora”), the Kulu with the shape of a citron, the “Carrubaro” with fruit that grows in bunches, blood varieties, red varieties “Limone Rosso”, etc. The “Femminello Zagara Bianca” has a sour fruit and beautiful white flowers like the “Cerza”.

Ponderosa lemons
Ponderosa lemons

There are small-fruited cultivars which are unfortunately not heavy fruiters, which is why potted plant growers prefer types such as Limone Toscano with medium-sized fruit that sets quickly and is prolific.

Decorative lemons without the priority for juice are less rich in pulp, which does not prevent their use in cooking, especially to preserve them in sugar or salt, drying the zest for use in herbal teas, and to make jams or lemon curd. Lemons preserved in salt are a staple of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking.

More information and history can be found in Helena Attlee’s fascinating book – a highly recommended jolly good read for summer days – “The Land Where Lemons Grow: The story of Italy and its citrus fruit”.

With grateful thanks to Jean-Paul Brigand and Ann Kenny.

Rosie Peddle [email protected]   www.mgaportugal.org

Mediterranean Gardening Association – Portugal

Variegated lemons
Variegated lemons

Where to find plants to buy

  • The main source for healthy trees in Europe is the Oscar Tintori nursery with a breathtaking catalogue and quality plants. oscartintori.it/en
  • The garden centre Espaço Sudoeste, Bruno Pedroso & Irmão (Vila Nova de Milfontes) regularly imports plants from the Tintori nursery. Call 283 996 159.
  • For local varieties, visit a monthly market and also Viveiros José Maria Dinis, Lda, Vale Pereiro, Nave, Monchique. Call 966 522 033
  • Citrina Lda, Foral, Messines, has an online shop for ornamental citrus in many varieties citrina-plants.com/en

For organic fruit trees in the Algarve:

  • José Duarte Gamboa, Silves: Fruit trees, ornamentals. Email [email protected]
  • Lima’s Fruit – José Lima, Falfosa: Fruit trees, fruit forest and edible gardens. Email [email protected]
  • Orchard of Flavours, Luz de Tavira: a unique botanical garden dedicated to fruit trees and edible plants of warm climates. Email orchardofflavours.org

By Rosie Peddle
|| [email protected]

289 791 869 | [email protected]