Helen McKerralNative finger lime

For some strange reason, some of the most delicious fruits are almost impossible to find in Aussie greengrocer shops. Lemonade fruit, for example – lemon flavour but without any acidity, as sweet as the sweetest mandarin.

Lemonade fruit flower

However, although you won’t find the fruit in vegie shops, lemonade trees have been available from specialist growers and garden centres for at least a decade in South Australia. Another delicious citrus fruit that I’ve never seen available fresh in greengrocers (although it’s advertised as a frozen product) is Australian native Finger Lime, Citrus australasica (syn Microcitrus australasica).

Finger lime new growth

This shrub or small tree is native to rainforest areas of north east New South Wales and southeast Queensland and grows 6-10 metres in its native habitat, but usually less than that in cultivation. Like many other citrus, native limes also have thorns, but their leaves are tiny, and they form intricately branched, prickly shrubs that are more open and less lush in effect than your usual citrus because of the size of its leaves.

Hundreds of small, pale pink to white flowers smother the bush in spring – quite lovely. The fruit is about the size and shape of my ring finger, and comes in a range of colours. The fruit on my ‘Rainforest Pearl’ cultivar is meant to be purple, green or pink, but they are actually an unfortunate dull brownish-purple hue, so that they look disconcertingly like something a small dog might leave on your front lawn! Come to think of it, perhaps that’s why greengrocers don’t stock this fruit!

‘Rainforest Pearl’ finger lime fruit

But please, don’t be put off by my description, because what’s inside is just so exceptionally yummy you won’t care that you have a bush apparently festooned with dog poop. When you open the thin skin you find translucent, shiny green, pink or white pearls that are the size and texture of caviar. But when you bite them, instead of a fishy flavour, there’s an intense burst of tangy lime. The little beads are fantastic for cocktails, or with oysters or salmon, or for garnishing desserts and canapes, or in Thai salads. The taste is a bit different, but you can substitute for most recipes that call for lime, or even ruby grapefruit segments. The skin is edible too, like that of a cumquat, so you can slice the limes across and use them that way, and actually the skin has even more flavour than the beads. You can also make preserves, but this seems like a bit of a waste to me, because so much of this fruit’s appeal lies in its texture – I use my Tahitian limes for marmalades instead.

I bought my tree five or six years ago and until recently it’s lived happily in a very large pot, under the eaves on the north side of my house in a spot where it receives morning sun only. Chris Perry has a magnificent potted specimen in filtered light at his nursery, on the eastern side of a building. Mine loses some of its leaves over winter and looks a bit scrappy in early spring, but bounces back with plenty of new growth by summer.

As a tropical rainforest species, native finger lime won’t handle heavy frosts, but Louis Glowinski in his “The Complete Book of Fruit Growing in Australia” reports that it tolerates light frosts. My garden is quite sloping and completely frost free, and in a sheltered position it manages  winters in my area just fine: that’s temperatures of only a few degrees at night, 9 – 14 degrees during the day, and lots of mist and drizzle.

I potted my tree into native mix, and fertilised in spring and summer with slow release Osmocote for Native Plants. Pests seem to be much the same as for other citrus – scale and caterpillars mainly, easily controlled organically with eco oil or Dipel or, as I did, physically removed on a modest potted specimen. Small spiders love living amongst its prickly, protective branches, so it has its own insect control!

Finger lime flower

This spring, I planted my tree into the new area, preparing the soil as I described previously for good drainage, and adding a very small amount of garden lime (Annette McFarlane in  her excellent book”Organic Fruit Growing” suggests they prefer a pH of 6 – 8). Native Finger lime needs protection from afternoon summer sun in my climate, which I’ve provided, but it may receive too much midday sun until my espaliered fruit trees to the north grow a bit. I’ll see how it goes, and transplant it to a more sheltered spot if necessary.

As for most native plants, it’s essential to choose fertilisers low in phosphorous – commercial growers use NPK 15:4:11 –  but well-rotted composts, manures and pelletised chicken manure can form the basis for growing in the home garden, supplemented with trace elements and potassium for a decent crop. Native finger limes need only about one quarter the fertiliser of conventional citrus, and over-feeding can cause dieback. Lots of open mulch (I use pea straw) keeps the roots cool, and I water this tree like my other citrus – once every 7 – 14 days, depending on the weather.

For more information about this terrific Australian fruit, this NSW DPI article has plenty.

 

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Helen McKerral

About Helen McKerral

Horticultural journalist, photographer, contributor to many garden magazines, and author of 'Gardening on a Shoestring'. Adelaide Hills, South Australia

18 thoughts on “Native finger lime

  1. narf7 on said:

    That link doesn’t work 🙁

    • Helen Dillon on said:

      Hi, just a suggestion ! I have preserved fingerlimes in jelly. You make a basic fruit jelly recipe – I used an apple jelly , just before you jar your jelly stir in some fingerlime beads. If the jelly is a bit cooler the beads sit suspended in the Jelly. It looks fantastic. Im not sure how long it lasts, but tastes great.
      regards
      Helen

  2. AliCat on said:

    I love the sound of this citrus Helen. I reckon that it is a definite ‘must’ try plant. Might even get one for my daughter Lexie in South Australia when I next visit. Alison

  3. If I hadn’t tried one of these finger lime fruits, already cut open, at a media trade day earlier this year, I doubt that I could bring myself to consider eating it. When I saw your photo, I must admit I burst out laughing! The taste is a brilliant limey zing but I think that the first plant breeder that can create one with a less doggy-do look will be on the money!

  4. Carol Griesser on said:

    Catherine if you look at the website that Helen recommends at the end of her article you will find that it has been done already; even pink fruits!

  5. Your post brings back memories for me Helen, of a wonderful few days we spent at Binna Burra in south east Qld, going for long walks with a delightful, informed and entertaining guide who showed us all the bush foods we could eat within its rainforests. Finger limes were one and I remember the fantastic tang as the flesh hit my tongue for the first time.

    I never thought of growing one in a pot, so thanks for the inspiration, and will now get one and follow your ( and Annette’s) instructions accordingly.

  6. Pingback: Purple potatoes | GardenDrum

  7. roux on said:

    bonjour recherche un fournisseur de citron caviar pour la france merci

  8. Millicent on said:

    Can I prune the finger lime. Mine has many dead looking branches.

    • helen mckerral on said:

      Yes, definitely. I remove dead branches as they appear, but have also been pinching out the growing tips throughout my tree’s life to encourage the plant to remain bushy. The odd dead branch appearing here and there each year is normal, but if there are excessive dead branches your tree may have a form of die-back that affects these trees. Ensure drainage and air circulation are good to prevent this.

  9. kmfinigan on said:

    Finger limes are such a great thing to be growing, mine survives incredibly well in a pot on my verandah! Ive got some advice for those suffering from fruit fall on my blog if you’re interested – http://bit.ly/1lcEcAy

  10. Anita Thompson on said:

    My daughters finger lime has quite a large amount of its foliage maybe a quarter to a third which has suddenly gone brown and lifeless. She has recently planted it out into the ground with little reference to position so I’ll suggest that she check out the amount of sun throughout the day and I also suspect that she may have fertilized it with osmocote slow release citrus food. Do you think these could be her problem?

    • helen on said:

      Good drainage is essential for these trees – waterlogging causes root rots and die-back of branches; over-fertilising causes die-back too (see above – fertilise at rates one quarter of exotic citrus).

  11. Amber on said:

    I planted my finger lime (red champagne grafted onto flying dragon) in citrus potting mix, mixed with coconut coir. Was this a bad idea? It is potted, perhaps changing to natives mix would be better..

    • helen on said:

      Whereabouts are you, Amber? Adding coir might make the mix too soggy if you’re anywhere but a very hot, dry climate, especially if your pot is plastic and not porous terracotta. How long has the plant been potted? If not long (eg weeks rather than months), I’d repot. If longer, I’d add extra holes to the bottom of the pot if possible. Other than that, I can only say that I had success for many years when my finger lime was still potted in straight native mix, regularly fertilised with Native Osmocote.

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