(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 30, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
The Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia) is distinctly different from the variety of lime that is used throughout the world, which is the "Persian lime" (Citrus latifolia). The fruit is much smaller, more round, a bright greenish yellow when ripe and has a much more distinctive aroma and superior flavor. It's very juicy, tart, and has a thin skin. This variety is said to have originated in southeast Asia and was taken to Italy and Spain by the Crusaders, from where it made its way to the New World on the ships of the explorers.
The tree is a medium-tall grower and very thorny; there are dwarf varieties available for growing in containers. They grow true from seed and so are not necessarily always grafted (like most other fruit trees); the only disadvantage to this is the fact that it takes a young tree longer to bear fruit when it's grown from seed, as opposed to grafted. Airlayering is a good propagation option.
The mature Key lime tree, like most citrus trees, will benefit from regular pruning to allow air between the branches. he tree can easily be hybridized, which has resulted in varieties such as Limequats (lime with kumquat) and LemonLimes (lime crossed with lemon). It is not a complicated tree to grow being drought-resistant and tolerant of poor soil, as long as drainage is good.
The Key lime tree bears fruit year-round in our southern Florida climate, most abundantly in the summer months. It is frost-tender, and needs lots of sun to produce fruit. They are grown commercially in Florida, and--most often--in Mexico, where the fruit are frequently harvested while still green. Many commercial groves in Florida have replaced the Key Lime trees with Persian limes which are easier to harvest because they are not so thorny and convoluted in form, sacrificing flavor for convenience....
This is a necessary food crop in southeast Asia, where the fruit is used daily for many culinary and even medicinal purposes. I personally would not eat a papaya without a sprinkling of fresh lime juice (if you've never developed a liking for papaya I urge you to try this - it could change your mind). In Malaysia it is believed that limes will drive evil spirits away.
Clearly, I could not write about Key limes without introducing you to the famous Key Lime Pie. The recipe for this delicacy is said to go back to William ‘Rich Bill' Curry, a shipping magnate and one of the most prominent citizens of Key West in the mid-nineteenth century.
There are many different recipes, and each one claims to be ‘the original one'. This one is quick and easy and delicious!
(While it is difficult to buy fresh key limes outside of Florida and some areas of the Caribbean and Mexico, the bottled juice is available for purchase at gourmet shops and online, and will do just fine for the preparation of Key Lime pie).
By the way, if you buy a ready-made Key Lime Pie that is GREEN, it will most likely not contain the real Key lime juice which gives the pie a more yellow hue.
ORIGINAL FLORIDA KEY LIME PIE RECIPE
(this is Florida's official State Pie!!)
One 9-inch graham cracker crust
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks
4 ounces Florida Key Lime juice (approximately 4-5 limes)
(personally I always add the grated rind of one lime, too)
For the meringue:
4 egg whites, ½ teaspoon cream of tartar, 2 tablespoons sugar. Beat until soft peaks form
Mix milk and egg yolks with electric mixer, add the key lime juice (and the grated rind), and pour the mixture into the pie shell. Bake at 350 degrees for 8 to10 minutes. Take the pie out of the oven, cover with the meringue and bake for another few minutes (keep an eye on it!) at 450 degrees until the meringue starts to brown.
Garnish with a few slices of lime.
If you prefer you can omit the meringue and serve the pie with whipped cream instead.
Key Lime martini
2 shots of vanilla vodka
½ shot key lime juice
2 tbsp. cream of coconut
1 shot pineapple juice
Shake everything together and strain into a martini glass.
Check here for mailorder vendors who offer Key Lime trees:
You may also enjoy this article: http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/1797/
Pictures and recipe of Key Lime Pie and Key Lime juice from Florida.juice.com; picture and recipe of the Key Lime Martini courtesy of the Food Network
Picture of bowl of limes taken by me.