Tips for growing native finger limes

Citrus australasica

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Lime caviar really is the perfect way to describe this fruit. The first time I sampled finger limes I was amazed at how firm the little juice beads actually are. It’s only when you crunch down on them in your mouth that they burst and the tangy flavour is released. The texture is quite sensational and the flavour more complex than regular limes. The red champagne cultivar is described as having fruit with spiced apple, apricot and berry aromas. I planted my own finger lime last spring after completing a bush foods workshop in Sydney with Narelle Happ. Mine is a pink variety called Rainforest Pearl and I can’t wait to get my first fruit!

Description

The most well known of Australia’s six species of native citrus, finger limes are considered a gourmet bushfood and are sought after by top restaurants around the world. They are a fringe rainforest and understorey species indigenous to the rainforests of south-east Queensland and northern New South Wales. Finger limes are a hardy shrub to small tree and in cultivation plants usually grow around 2 to 5 metres and can be pruned to a manageable height to make them easy to harvest. Leaves are significantly smaller than regular citrus, and they have thorns and slender finger-like fruit from 6 to 12 centimetres long that come in a range of colours including black, green, red, pink, and yellow. Nursery stock  are usually grafted onto common citrus rootstock varieties.

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Growing tips

You can grow your finger lime in the ground or in a container and they will perform well as a feature tree, hedge, or even espaliered against a fence. They will tolerate nutrient poor soil and will require around a quarter of the amount of fertiliser as regular citrus. Apply fertiliser, compost or decomposed animals manure, as well as trace elements in spring. For best results prepare soil with organic matter or buy a quality potting mix. Soil should be well-drained with a pH of between 5 and 6.5. Water containers every 3 to 4 days, and more frequently on hot days.

Find a wind protected position for your tree with full-sun to part-shade and shelter your plant from the hot afternoon summer sun. They will tolerate light frosts once they have established but if you live in a cold region, you could try growing it in a container and moving it in response to the weather.

To maintain a neat and healthy foliage, regular light pruning is advised and once the plant is established lightly prune after harvesting fruit. Encourage an open shape with around 4 to 6 branches and remove any suckers from the rootstock.

Finger limes experience similar pests and diseases as other citrus including aphids, caterpillars, scale insects, bronze orange bugs, mealy bugs and grasshoppers. You also need to look out for dark brown spots that could be a fungal disease called melanose. They are also the natural host of the citrus gasp Bruchophahgus fellis and this can be reduce the quality and quantity of the fruit yield as well as the overall health of the tree. It’s important to check your trees for galls between June and September, and prune off any infected branches before the adult wasps emerge, which is usually by the end of August.

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Harvesting

Fruiting occurs between December and May, depending upon the cultivar and the climatic conditions. Grafted plants usually begin fruiting in their third year, and start having larger yields by their sixth year. The horticulturalist at the nursery told me I should have some fruit within a year or two of planting my tree. There is some variation between different cultivars with some fruiting multiple times a year, some fruiting annually and others biannually so consider this when selecting your variety.

Fruit must be picked when they have fully ripened because they won’t ripen off the tree. You’ll be able to tell if they are ready to pick because they will feel full and will fall off the branch easily. The skins are more delicate than regular citrus and easily scar so expect some of your crop to have some marks. Avoid picking fruit when they are wet or early in the morning to lower the risk of rind damage from the release of oil from damaged oil glands (oleocellosis).

Store picked fruit between 10 and 20 degrees and they should have a shelf life of around 3 weeks.

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Uses

You can use your finger limes with seafood, in salads, drinks, desserts, sauces or marmalades. Fruit can be frozen whole and this is a good way of preserving some for year round eating. Or the rind can be dried and crushed to be used as a spice.

To open, cut the fruit crossways and squeeze out the lime caviar. The oil from the skin can affect the flavour of the pulp, so it’s important to avoid getting excess oil from the skin on the pulp.

Where can you buy plants?

Go to a bush foods or native plant nursery or if there isn’t one nearby, talk to your local nursery and see if they will order one in for you. You could also order one from an online nursery.

Have you had success with finger limes?

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16 thoughts on “Tips for growing native finger limes

    1. Hi Edith, It sounds like your finger lime is under stress of some kind. The most likely reason is that it has dried out too much. I’ve also had a problem with mine occasionally in the very early stages of fruiting with the wind blowing the fruit off. It’s really disappointing isn’t it. Is your plant in a pot or in the ground? What location are in? And how is the plant looking healthy in general? If you are not sure, feel free to send some photos to my email address.

  1. Hi my finger lime has lived in a pot for many years (maybe 3 years) and has fruited however this year it has lost all leaves and the stem is slowly dyeing – should I trim it right back and move it into the semi shade and give a good drink- it normally lives in direct sun in the hottest place of the garden and I think it has suffered from this drought – thanks for your advice

    1. Hi Lea, what size pot is your finger lime in? And has it been getting regular water? Sometimes dieback can be caused by a problem with the roots so I wondered if they might have got too much water at some point? Like other citrus, finger fingers like well-drained soil/potting media. How is the potting media responding when you water? Does it run off or soak in?Yes, I would cut off the dead areas and neaten it up but don’t cut it right back. And yes, providing some light shade would be a good idea.Some seaweed tonic and fertiliser would be a good idea too.

  2. just want to add that over watering your lime will also cause leaves to fall off. they don’t mind dry soil. make sure it drains well and not wet all the time as this is main cause of leaves falling off.

    1. Hi Denise,
      I’ve never tried this myself but you could give it a go. You can use the rind in other ways so it’s worth a try. Maybe you could add some lemon or lime juice to bulk up the liquid and also so you can make use of your finger lime flesh. Let us know how you go 🙂

    1. Hi Geordi, I haven’t personally heard of them being used in a tea but if someone else has some reliable information on this please feel free to comment. Thanks for your question 🙂

    1. Hi Dee, they don’t have special fragrance like Kaffir Lime leaves and I haven’t heard of anyone using them in a culinary way. Let me know if you discover any information about this though. I wouldn’t imagine they would taste very nice 🙂

    1. I live in Baltimore, MD, USA. I was given a small seedling fingerling lime plant in the fall of 2015, which has been growing steadily ever since.

      I transplanted it two times, and it was doing well indoors, putting out plenty of new growth. But when I brought it outside for the spring, the leaves all turned a pale brown. I just repotted it and put in a long-acting citrus fertilizer stick in the pot. I also cut off the new growth that had turned brown, but not the other brown growth, because there is so much of it. Please tell me what is wrong, and how I can fix it.

      1. Hi Julie, Sorry to hear about your finger lime after you have been nurturing it all this time. It could be a number of things. Over-watering could have been a factor, or too much fertiliser (Australian Native citrus like less fertiliser than regular citrus). Did the new pot have good drainage? Was the sitting in a saucer/bowl at all? What is your spring weather like? Is it very different to your inside environment?

  3. I have had my finger lime now for 4 years, it has neither flowered nor fruited in this time, it did lose all it’s foliage a few years ago but after fertilizing with the seaweed fertilizer the leaves grew back, I am still waiting for it to flower and fruit, am I doing something wrong? I live Northern NSW/QLD Border (Tweed) and the pot it’s in is in full sun, perhaps it needs to be shaded in the afternoon?

    1. Finger Limes do take a few years to fruit and flower. As long as yours is looking healthy I wouldn’t worry (look at the colour of the leaves – are they a nice mid/dark green?). It will probably fruit very soon. Particularly if it has had a set back. In terms of position, mine have a bit of afternoon protection, but your trees will let you know if they have happy or not. Are there any signs of leaf burn? Is it in a reasonable sized pot? It’s great you have given it some seaweed tonic. Have you given it any fertiliser over this time?

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