Finger limes, a fun pretty, newish fruit for Hawaii gardens

By Heidi Bornhorst

Citrus grow well in our Hawaii gardens, trees come in all shapes and sizes. Many people ask me for smaller fruit trees, or even shrubs and finger lime fits this to a T!

 One fun one that I first heard about and got to sample while visiting gardens on Hawaii island (a few years ago) with fellow horticulturist Erin Lee is the finger lime.

It is so Fun to eat! Cut open a ripe one and just squeeze it out like wasabi paste !  Fun for keiki to learn about, grow and eat more healthy fruit.

The little fruitlets inside can be white, green, or pink. The skin of the fruit as well as the insides, comes in different colors.

 So pretty and decorative for your Holiday table, whatever the Holiday is!  Let’s celebrate being alive and learning to grow and eat new things from our own gardens !

And sharing with friends and neighbors!

Amazing at your next gourmet potluck!  (when it safe to have a pa`ina). Imagine pairing it with home made sushi ! or on fish, or in drinks

Lee suggests growing it in a large decorative ceramic pot in full sun.  Once it’s growing vigorously, you can shape it as a standard or into a topiary on your sunny lanai or party patio !

It came to us from Australia, a land of many wonderful and unusual plants.

Scientists call it Citrus australasica and it is in the Rutaceae or Citrus Family. It is also sometimes called “caviar lime”.

 It is a rambling, very thorny, under-story shrub or small tree, from lowland, subtropical rain-forests, and dry rain-forests in the coastal border region of Queensland and New South Wales, Australia.

Happily, we are now growing finger limes in Hawai’i. We need to grow more of them and test varieties and find out which are best for our micro-climates.

The shrub is variable in height and its leaves and mixed in with thorns. Buds are purple, petals are white . The flowers are tiny . The fruit is cylindrical, 4–8 inches long, sometimes slightly curved, and shaped like a fat finger. Finger limes come in a range of colors, both inside and out

HOW DO YOU EAT IT?

One fun way to prepare eat this fruit is to cut the ends off and use a  rolling pin and roll out the small, caviar-shaped vesicles. The fruit caviar can be used wherever you would like a squeeze of citrus.  Or just cut and squeeze out the fruitlets like a tube of wasabi paste.

For a fun family pa`ina, have your keiki help you prepare your gourmet fruit platter and let them open and squeeze out the tart juicy insides.

In France they call it “lemon Caviar’ and it commands a very high price in Gourmet restaurants.  They must grow them in greenhouses there.

This could be a model for us in Hawaii. A rare, pretty and flavorful gourmet treat sold for a good price.  We could develop our own varieties that do thrive here.

This is true Horticulture and why the U.H. could sure use a Tropical fruit specialist to help grow our farms and support farmers.

I spoke with amazing ex UH extension agent Jari Sugano.  She was growing finger limes as a hedge crop at Waimanalo experimental station.  She mentioned how thorny they are.

Clients do ask me for thorny plants to help secure their homes and gardens. This could be a plus for farm security but does make harvesting tricky.

Tree crops are good for the land as they are perennials and you don’t have to work over the soil like with veg crops.  This is the concept of permaculture,

Frank Sekiya and Lynn Tsuruda of Frankie’s Fruit Tree Nursery in Waimanalo are growing finger limes. I talked to them about their experience with this interesting citrus fruit.  

Douglas Himmelfarb was living at the Marks estate in Nu’uanu and he gave Sekiya some varieties.   The California varieties do fruit well in California but not always here in Hawaii.

Some in the field that Sekiya planted got huge, and never bore fruit. Some only a few fruits; Sekiya relates that there is so much variability. 

Ken Love, a major Fruit advocate on Hawaii island, gave Sekiya some cuttings, and he say it fruits all year,  and it’s the slightly pink one. The outside of the fruit is kind of purple and  matures to green, if it gives a little, that’s how you tell its ripe enough to pick, the fruit will have sort of a spongy feel.

We have so many micro-climates and soil types in Hawaii, that we all can experiment with which ones grow and fruit best in our own ecosystem. People have had them in their yards for a while, says Sekiya and some grew well, and yet barely fruited,

They graft finger limes and can also start them from cuttings.  Grafting is quicker, but it’s a practice and skill that not many have today.  (Something to learn and practice, while we stay safely at home ?!)

Root stocks (the bottom part of the graft) are important.  As many people prefer smaller trees, for semi dwarf  trees ‘Rubidoux trifoliate’ were advised at one time for their dwarfing effects, but as Tsuruda says,  ‘We don’t use the Rubidoux trifoliate anymore since citrus  trees grow fairly slowly in Hawaii and are easily pruned’. 

  ‘Heen naran’ is a good root stock.  It’s from India,  U.H. highly recommends it.  It’s Good for most citrus here in Hawaii. The Botanical name for Heen Naran is Citrus lycopersicaeformis.  (The fruits of this root stock are small, round, super seedy inside,  and look something like a tomato, Lyco is a Latin name referring to tomatoes, as in the healthy lycopene, we’re encouraged to eat more of)

‘Some people like it it for New year’s décor, as the size and shape fits very well on the mochi stack since it’s an inch in diameter. It’s very productive and very seedy’, says Sekiya. 

The U.H. has had Trees at Poamoho Experimental Station for 30 years, all grafted with the Heen Naran root stock, which seemed to survive over 30 years while some others were grafted to different root stocks.

Most Citrus of the good, preferred varieties are sweet all year not only summer.  Only the pummelo seems to be sweeter in summer than in winter. 

Sekiya says that Tristeza virus is what can weaken and  kill Citrus trees, the root stock helps them be stronger and more resistant and vigorous.   Life of a citrus is 20-30 years here in general, and with heen naran maintains good growth. 

Sekiya as Chef, says he just put some finger limes on fish the other night, ‘on salmon and saba, and says that it tastes really good and adds some crunch!’.

Some people put it in beer, and it doesn’t dissolve like limes so at end you have these fish egg like things to chew on’.

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