1893 Finger lime plants received at Burnley Gardens

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The finger lime (Citrus australasica) is among the bush foods Australian chefs began rediscovering in the 1980s. But horticulturalists were aware of this native citrus many decades earlier. A 1912 article in The Leader, Melbourne, recounted that finger lime trees had been sent from Brisbane to the Burnley Gardens, operated by the Royal Horticultural Society of Victoria, in 1893.  Both trees eventually died, although one struggled on for nearly 20 years. The chilly southern climate evidently didn’t suit this native of Queensland and northern New South Wales.

It seems the finger lime was considered a curiosity. A 1934 newspaper article identified it as one of three species of Australian native citrus that might appeal to Queensland gardeners. As early as 1908, seeds had been exported to the United States, but the fruit failed to attract the attention of commercial growers.  In 1975, the finger lime was mentioned in the book Wild Food of Australia, by Alan and Joan Crib. They wrote that the rainforest native would delight those who liked sour fruit:

If the fruit is cut across, the turgid pulp cells expand and separate, pushing out of the five or six longitudinal segments as a cluster of small, glistening balls…they burst pleasantly at slight pressure from the teeth and provide a most welcome refreshment. The fruits also can be made into marmalade which not only has a pleasant flavour and distinctive perfume but is ornamental as well, the sliced rings of fruit looking like miniature cartwheels.

The distinctive balls that emerge from the fruit have earned it the nickname “fruit caviar”. The fruits can be green, yellow, pink or deep red. As interest in native foods grew, chefs began to incorporate them into a range of dishes. In 1988, at the International Cooking Festival in Japan, chef Jean-Paul Bruneteau served barbecued crocodile, Balmain bug, scampi and Tasmanian scallops on a sauce of orange and finger lime.

Among the first to grow finger limes commercially was Judy Viola, of Bangalow in northern New South Wales. She began commercial cultivation around 1990, grafting finger lime cultivars onto commercial rootstock. As with other citrus varieties, the fruit cannot be reliably propagated from seed.

In 2010, the New South Wales Government released a comprehensive guide to growing finger limes. There are now a number of growers supplying the restaurant and retail markets from late summer through to late autumn. Much of the crop is exported.

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