Citrus : A plant profile

Article overview:

  • Introduction

  • Citrus genus and history

  • Rutaceae plant family

  • Medicine of Citrus:

  • Grapefruit

  • Orange

  • Lemon

  • California Citrus Mint Bitters

  • Product Recommendations

Introduction to Citrus

I remember the daily glass of Orange or Grapefruit juice I used to have with breakfast growing up. The sweetened and concentrated juices got poured in cold glass jars with ice. My mom would feed my sister and I half a Grapefruit each for breakfast sometimes, covered in sugar to mask the bitter flavor and paired with a special spoon that cuts around in-between the fruit and the white inner skin.  Around Christmastime, Orange and Grapefruit would ripen in Florida, and the fruits would make their way up through the South and into local stores. It was common to get an orange in your Christmas stocking, a welcome fresh source of Vitamin C in the depths of winter. I also remember religiously coating my already straw-blonde hair with fresh lemon juice in the summer, sometimes leaving dried pulp in the strands in order to speed up the summer sun's lightening process. Often this left my then long strands snow white by August.

Spending time in California's Mediterranean climate has me seeing Orange, Grapefruit, Lemon and other Citrus species growing all over different parts of the state. Folks even plant these small trees or shrubs in their yards for food and decoration. On some occasions, you notice piles of Citrus rotting on sidewalks from no one picking them. Other times, you see the fruit picked as far as can be reached, even within the space past someone on another's shoulders. The smell of fermented and squished fruits can waft down side alleys or main drags. If you're into urban foraging, it certainly is possible to go on quite the hunt through the Bay area, or Florida! On top of the seasonal Persimmons, Prickly Pear fruits / Nopales, Plums, Apples, Blackberries, Peaches and Figs--- Kumquats, Lemons, Grapefruits, and Oranges are in great abundance from once vast orchard plantings now interwoven in widespread suburbia. If you're lucky, you'll have these in your yard and have to get creative with using them in your food and medicine throughout the year. Or you find willing friends to give away your extras.

We'll generally cover in this plant profile some information about Grapefruits, Oranges and Lemons, even though there are tons of other Citrus species out there that are commonly used including Lime, Tangerine and more. There's so much to say and cover about using these fruits. There's so many recipes, cocktails and cultural uses out there for these species. 

It's important to remember to use organic Citrus, especially if you are going to use the peel of the fruit in cooking, tea or cocktails. The rind is often coated with a wax if you buy it in a store, and any fungicidal residues from crop spraying will still be on the peel, even if it is washed. Also, any systemic-type fungicides or pesticides used on the plant will be a part of the fruit you eat. Also, organic Citrus has been scientifically proven to contain more Vitamin C (Duarte, cited below) which is important for our bodies to function normally. I know its hard sometimes to find organic! It's worth the search!


(most photos in this article are not mine- I did not have everything needed in my photography collection, mostly they came from Wikicommons and are credited as such)

Citrus genus + history

The fruits of many members of the Citrus genus are sold in grocery stores and fruit stands and cultivated in China, Brazil, India, California and south in Mexico, Florida, the Mediterranean, and beyond. The cultivation of the genus began long ago in parts of southeast Asia with humble wild beginnings likely in the lower areas of the Himalayas. The citrus species and cultivars look quite different than their ancient ancestors. 

As humans cultivated the genus more, it spread places beyond its wild origins, and cultures of use formed over time where it landed. Citrus blossoms even have a tradition of use and mythology in food and medicine in parts of Asia, the Middle East and Europe.  The fruits we know and use today came originally from a small core group of species. The genus loves tropical and subtropical weather, as it is the climate where it originated. It thrives as well in a Mediterranean climate where frosts are fewer or next to none, though in this climate the air tends to be dry and rain comes during half the year. The genus seems to thrive in the Mediterranean climate even though it is not like the climate it came from. In the Mediterranean basin, some Citrus species have been there for hundreds of years and have gained unique characteristics.

 Citrus was brought to the "Americas" during colonial times and was quickly cultivated over hundreds of years, finally reaching a point in the 1800's where it became viable economically in Florida. Of course, in this time, the native Seminoles fought colonizers through three so-called wars to be able to stay in their native homelands. As the story goes, like with other colonizers / native clashes, the Natives were first forced to move into uncharted territory, and then forced yet again to flee or move into small reservations, and then forced yet again to move all together. Several hundred Seminoles stayed and hid out in Big Cypress Swamp, an area that the colonizers didn't care about, and is now home to one of several Seminole reservations in Florida (Seminole Wars, cited below). Randomly, I attended a large music festival there in my early 20's where I remember getting constantly bit by fire ants. Out of the mass killing and removal of the majority of Seminoles in Florida, rose the giant economy of Citrus.

The economy that formed from growing Citrus in Florida started in the 1400's when the first Spanish colonizers planted varieties there brought from the Mediterranean. Over time, through experiments, trial and error, the varieties that truly thrived in Florida's tropical climate and sandy soil emerged. The economy of Florida boomed into the 1950's, 60's and 70's and currently issues with disease are affecting the economic viability of the industry in Florida. Hundreds of thousands of acres in Florida are now used for cultivating Citrus only, replacing important diverse ecology only found in Florida. About 75% of workers who pick Citrus on plantations in Florida are foreign, and only about half of those come into the country legally via a special work program that Citrus farms can initiate. (NPR article, cited below)  While many people say that these migrant workers are replacing jobs for local so called 'real Americans' (though, again, read the history of brutal Seminole displacement), why is it that the Citrus plantations are going through so much trouble to help get temporary visas for these workers, and even paying for their housing, transportation and food? What about the Citrus farming economy pressures corporate farms to rely on this labor for its ability to survive in the marketplace? Many of the migrant workers are grateful for the work, even if it means that they feel 'trapped' and sometimes the situation turns into indentured servitude, or forced slavery that goes under the public's radar. Quoted in the NPR article, cited below:

"Gonzalez has a family, too. That family, back in Veracruz, is a big reason why he's here. "I have a son in university, and a daughter in high school," he says. If I was there, I wouldn't be able to pay her semester fees, his university fees. I'm able to help the kids get ahead, that's what the U.S. allows me to do."

If we want Citrus readily available any time, we must be willing to welcome these workers, take on the hard labor jobs ourselves, go without Citrus, or find a way to grow our own where possible. 

 Many of the corporate Citrus plantations in Florida have 'patented' their 'brand or cultivated variety' for their use only. Some species have been cultivated to withstand slightly cooler climates. 

The genus simply is called "Citrus" and includes different species and cultivated ones are designated with an 'X' in the scientific name, as is with other cultivars in traditional botany nomenclature.

Some examples of plants in this genus include: Orange, Grapefruit, Lemon, Tangerine, Kumquat, Lime, Bitter Orange, Pomelo, Mandarin, Blood Orange and many more.

Being subtropical in origin, trees and shrubs in this genus tend to be evergreen and broad-leafed. They tend to fruit in winter, though some varieties will produce a trickle all year. Some produce fruit but take months to ripen fully. Some of the fruits can store for a bit without going bad, others need to be eaten fairly soon after ripening. The outer layer of Citrus fruit is where the 'zest' comes from in seasoning and cooking. The inner layer or mesocarp is where the white pith is located, which is extremely nutritious. Inside of that, are the juicy sacks or vesicles which make up what we generally consume the most. 

The Rutaceae plant family

The Rutaceace plant family doesn't encompass a lot of recognizable species for folks who live in the Northern Hemisphere, aside from the important plant Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) which contains (literally) mouth watering white blood cell stimulating alkamides found also in Echinacea and Spilanthes. As a medicinal plant, Prickly Ash helps to stimulate the immune system response in the body. I have seen it growing in north Florida. 

Medicine of Citrus //

Grapefruit + Peel

Many folks have heard of and swear by Grapefruit seed extract and spend a lot of money on it to stimulate their immune system or lose weight. I feel like the extract is too expensive without enough evidence of it's use being actually effective. I am also weary of extracts that isolate certain compounds and claim to be a 'cure all.'

Grapefruit in general has more bitterness than Orange, and its skins and fruit are a great digestive stimulant. Making a simple tincture of the peel, or peel and fruit, would be great in herbal formulas that need that extra rounded immune boost. It can also lower blood pressure due to is vasodilation effects, hence why doctors might actually suggest eating more grapefruits since it has this effect. It also contains tons of Vitamin C, A, and Lycopene (also found in Tomatoes, wild Autumn Olive fruits, and more) which is important for heart health. 

Grapefruit is a common element found in bitters recipes, cocktails and mocktail apertifs and digestifs meant to sandwich a meal, providing increased digestive movement and assimilation of nutrients. That's why bitter is so important in our diet in the begin with, without it, we cannot take up all we can receive from the food we eat. Fruits like Grapefruit are attractive because they have a sweetness, sourness and bitterness all together. Of course, like I mentioned at the top of this piece, sugar is often added to Grapefruit in order to mask the inherent bitterness. 

It is possible that Grapefruit is an MAO Inhibitor which basically means research before you consume a lot of Grapefruit juice with your prescription drugs. It could magnify the negative side effects of certain drugs (or psychedelics, ahem) due to its ability to increase the bioavailability of these compounds in the body.

Orange + Peel

By Franz Eugen Köhler

By Franz Eugen Köhler


The fruit of orange itself, full of vitamin C, contains natural sugars and gives the body a physical and mental uplight. The fruit and juice is slightly mucous promoting, while the flower, leaf and peel are more bitter, carminative, slightly astringent and moving. 

Grapefruit and Lemon fruit and juices have sugars, and sourness, but Orange fruit seems to have less sour and more sugar. Often Oranges have been touted as a Vitamin C cure-all, and while Oranges are a good source of Vitamin C, I don't necessarily think they are the best food to be eating during colds and sickness. I do think that their 'superfood' style nutritional benefits have been slightly hyped up in order to create a mass market for the fruits coming from Florida. 

The peel of Orange promotes movement in the body and is bitter. Like most bitters that send energy to the digestive system's ability to function properly, Orange peel helps to ultimately modulate the way stress affects digestion. Rebecca Altman wrote extensively about this process with Orange in her blog here.  The peel is also uplifting to the spirit, which in the depths of winter when Citrus is in season most places, it can provide some light in the heavy feeling of dark and cold. Like plants that capture a sense of light within them, through the cascade of increasing digestive potency, our nervous system is affected. Just like how our thoughts affect our physical bodies, our physical bodies affect our thoughts. Plants can be put in there to help shift the loops that sometimes seem unending. Bitters are a medicine that people who don't usually take herbal medicine can somewhat recognize, as the 'alcoholic beverage culture' has wove the traditions of bitters drinking before and after meals into the 5 o-clock evening cocktail hour.

Dry some (organic) orange peel after eating an orange, in the sun or in a breezy place. Jar it and brew up when needed as a hot tea, too.

Orange blossom flower is popular in some parts of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. It has a more directly nervine quality. It is helpful to have a bottle of it infused in vinegar, or as a hydrosol spray to use throughout the day as a mood mover, or in times of nervous anxiety. It is used to help calm the mind for sleep. It is also used for skin and hair health, and after being in the sun.

One way to make Orange blossom water: 

Collect the flowers during blooming, macerate them in water, making sure to smash and bruise them enough that their aroma and oils come out, let sit for a few hours, strain and then bottle in glass and store cold. It also can be distilled for stronger flavor and scent. 

This water is also used to flavor foods in cooking Moroccan cuisine, for example. It is used to infuse yogurts, pastries, fruit platters, almond milk (oh that sounds sooo divine), date cakes, a sweet dessert with chicken called bastilla, and so much more. It's use in food is like stringing happiness into flavor, focusing on the heart through cooking alchemy. Of course Bitter Orange, which is found more commonly in Europe and the Middle East, is traditionally used in the folk traditions that incorporate Orange Blossom water, and it is pretty genetically separate than Orange when you look at the taxonomy. Nonetheless, if its what you have, then why not try it out? I know a lot of folks don't live anywhere near having access to Orange Blossoms. In some places though, Orange Blossom season is the most divine experience. You drive through Orange groves in California and that calming nervine scent fills the air. If you can sneak into a grove and just inhale for awhile, you'd probably notice the effects on your body. 

Lemon + Peel

By Franz Eugen Köhler

By Franz Eugen Köhler

Lemon flower, photo taken in the Bay area, 2015.

Lemon flower, photo taken in the Bay area, 2015.

When I traveled to Italy when I was 15 years old, I remember trying Limoncello for the first time, a liqueor made with Lemon, sugar and alcohol. It made sense in the hot and dry environment, as an evening drink to sip. I still have a bottle I've kept over the years, with a little grolsch style topper. I'm not sure how good it is after all these years, though. It does indeed still have it's bright yellow color.

Lemon has become a regular ingredient in kitchens worldwide, from the industrial to the homespun. It can be found in our salad dressings, cold remedies, canning recipes, meat marinades, cocktails, cooking ingredients and more. It's essential oils are even used in alternative cleaning products. In some places, it grows easily, in others you must get it shipped from far away and out of season.

Lemon is a digestive stimulant, and reduces inflammation due to its anti-oxidant compounds. 

Here in California, the Meyer Lemon, a sweeter variety with palatable skins too, is the preferred delicacy varietal to be used in sweeter cooking, cocktails, tonics and more. According to Eric Davis, a former bay area chef, you can practically harvest Meyer Lemons three or four times a year near the coast where the climate is Mediterranean. 

Due to the bitter and pungent essential oils found in Lemon peel, but not in the juice, it lends itself as a concentrated flavor option in cooking or cocktails. To make Lemon zest, you use a cheese grater lightly or a specific grater made for zesting Lemons to scrape off the yellow peel, trying not to capture any white pith. If you do it will turn the flavor too bitter. It's best to use Lemon zest fresh. 

You can also dry lemon peel for use in tea at a later date. 

The Mojito cocktail drink uses Lime or Lemon zest. Rum, Sugar, Mint, Lime or Lemon fruit is muddled all together with ice in order to extract the essential oils of the Lime skin, the juice of the Lime fruit and the Mint leaves.

Do you want lemon with that water? Do you want a little digestive stimulation before eating your big meal? Not that the ice cubes we insist on in the U.S. help digestion very much. Lemon stokes the digestive fire with its acidic juices, and yet the ice cubes tame digestive fire. Despite this, it sure can feel good on a hot day. 

Lemon water with mint leaf. Even better for stimulating digestive fire AND cooling down a bit if it really is hot out. Hey, it's July! Lemon and Mint are your friends! Like the Mojito calls for, Lemon and Mint go together well. I use Lemon juice in water on a hot day with a tad of maple syrup for minerals. Paul Strauss of Equinox Botanicals in Ohio first taught me about using Mint tea on hot days with Lemon and honey or maple syrup to cool down. Again, the combination of Mint and Lemon is an ideal match. 

You can also brew them together hot for a medicinal tea, and with Ginger root added it is an extra immune boost.

Preserved Lemons:

Preserved Lemons are a traditional food ingredient in the Middle East, Morocco, in Mediterranean regions and beyond. Lemons already contain a lot of 'acid' compounds which promote preservation. To make preserved lemons, either keep the lemons whole sliced into quarters depending on how you want to use them. Put salt on the fruit itself and stuff them in a mason jar making sure to crush them enough to open up the citrus juices trapped in capsules. Add more layers of salt, and add hot water to the whole mixture. 

Use of Lemons in canning:

Staying at my Grandma's house in the rural southern Virginia countryside growing up, I was exposed to a kitchen in the process of canning extra garden veggies pretty often. The main things that get used in canning to preserve vegetables, jams or fruits are Lemon juice, salt, sugar, and vinegar. These things either bring the ph towards acid or act as an antibacterial to the contents inside of the jars. I use lemon juice in my apple sauce and apple butter recipes, in green bean canning to bring the not usually acidic vegetable towards acid. Canning is a modern technology with the mass production of glass and metal canning equipment, and the availability of Lemons and pre-made vinegar (though it is easy to make your own) has come with this technology. To be able to 'put up' extra food from the garden for the winter time is an amazing technological advancement in modern times that can allow us less dependence on buying food from the grocery store.  Plus it is so fun, and being able to see the beautiful food in jars is a treat. 

Use of Lemons in cooking:

My cohort of many years, Eric, was a chef in the Bay area of California for a decade. I often ask him questions about ingredients used in cooking and how they intersect with their medicine in food. It seems that most things are combined together for a reason, and this is the heart of 'Kitchen Medicine' which is essentially using the foods and herbs already a part of our kitchen system to promote balanced body and mind. The use of certain spices with food, is evidence of how much herbs used to be integrated into our everyday lives and food. Lemons are one of those 'kitchen medicine' ingredients. Lemon juice is used to tenderize meat, which is essentially recreating the initial stages of the digestion process which doesn't always require cooking, like in the case of fish which can be eaten raw especially when brined with lemon. 

Lemon zest and juice are used to bring a certain balance and complexity to flavors in food while also aiding what is probably Citrus' primary benefit: digestion and assimilation.


For our July land capsules, we are featuring our 1 oz California Citrus Mint Bitters blend. We harvested last Winter and Spring in the gardens of friends from the Bay area of California and the Central Valley, as well as from areas of the Sierra Foothills spanning the width of the state in survey to find the best fruit and most abundant stands of medicine to use for our recipes. You can subscribe to our land capsules at $30 / month, which supports the efforts of our Ground Shots Project, here.




Orange Peel 

Grapefruit Peel 

Lemon Peel 

Kumquat fruit whole 

California Mugwort 


GF potato vodka

Maple Syrup


citrus mint insta_v.jpg


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Works Cited


Duarte, A; Caixeirinho, D; Miguel, G; Nunes, C; Mendes, M; Marreiros, A (2010). "Vitamin C Content of Citrus from Conventional versus Organic Farming Systems"Acta Horticulturae868: 389–394. 

NPR. Guest Workers Legal Yet Not Quite Free Pick Florida's Oranges.

Wikipedia. Seminole Wars.

Rebecca Altman. Orange and Orange Blossom