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New fruit species dubbed ‘Lime-elo’

By Staff | Dec 29, 2009

Rome Township, Ohio has its apple.

New Jersey has its sweet corn.

Georgia has its peach.

Now, it appears that Sanibel has its Lime-elo.

The potential discovery of a new hybrid citrus tree has longtime island resident Steve Maxwell brimming with pride and hopeful that the fruit offspring of his crossbreed plant will – quite literally – continue to grow and gain popularity amongst Florida’s agricultural community.

The fruit, which Maxwell has dubbed the “Lime-elo,” appears to be a naturally-germinated hybrid between a key lime and a Mineola tangelo honeybell.

“This was a fully thriving key lime tree until Hurricane Charley came through and twisted the top off,” said Maxwell, standing next to what is now a four foot tall grey stump in his backyard. “It was still producing key limes and blooms until two years ago.”

Maxwell recalls that in late 2006, he was grilling some grouper on his barbecue. Using some of his key limes to marinate over the fish, he squeezed the juice from the fruit before tossing the remains into his yard.

On Monday, he said that he could never have imagined that anything would come of that action.

But it did.

“About two and a half years ago, I noticed that a seedling was growing around that same area where I tossed the key lime,” said Maxwell, who at one time worked for Maxwell Groves of Avon Park, Fla. “Key lime seeds can germinate within three and a half to four years, so I just kept an eye on it and it kept growing and growing.”

That tree now stands approximately 15 feet high and its branches stretch to about six feet in diameter.

Then, in late July, Maxwell noticed that the tree began to sprout what appeared to be key limes from its branches.

“They looked just like little key limes… they were dark green and appeared to have the same characteristics as juvenile key limes,” he said. “But as the summer went on, the fruit began to grow and turn yellow in color. I was astounded by the growth. And when I picked one of them a few weeks ago, they’re all orange.

That made Maxwell wonder: could his new fruit tree be something unlike any other?

“It looked unique and it tasted unique,” he explained. “To me, this is a first.”

Because the new tree was growing in a space between his old key lime tree and a younger, potted Mineola tangelo honeybell, Maxwell came to the conclusion that his discovery must be a naturally-produced crossbreed of both citrus plants – and one-of-a-kind.

“What happened here is nature being nature,” said Maxwell. “Who would’ve ever thought that discarding something like that would ever grow into anything? I certainly didn’t.”

With unique fruit in hand, Maxwell brought a sample from his self-named “Lime-elo” plant to both Scrivner’s Garden Center – which specializes in citrus products – and the University of Florida’s IFAS (Institute for Food & Agricultural Sciences) Extension in Fort Myers on Dec. 22.

“The fruit looks pretty. The color of the peel is not typical of a lime or lemon because it is relatively orange in color,” responded Dr. Mongi Zekri, a citrus agent with IFAS. “However, the fruit color inside was surprisingly yellow. The fruit is juicy and seedy.”

According to April Scrivner from Scrivner’s Garden Center, Maxwell’s accidental discovery of the first-ever Lime-elo plant is quite exciting for the agricultural industry.

“Between these two plants, a hybrid like this is very rare,” said Scrivner. “It will be interesting to see what happens when we start grafting this plant. There’s no telling what’s going to happen, but I am hoping that it holds the hybrid.”

It is unlikely that consumers will be able to pick up a couple of Lime-elos at their grocery store or farmer’s market any time soon, but friends of Maxwell have been lucky enough to taste one of the initial group of fruits – approximately 20 in total -produced by the tree.

“It definitely tastes like a lemon… very fresh and juicy. But the flavor doesn’t pucker,” said neighbor Adrien Rothschild, who has incorporated the Lime-elo in a fruit salad as well as a soup. “It’s quite distinctive… very lemony.”

But for Maxwell, he is most proud that this accidental crossbreed happened right here on Sanibel, which at one time was know for its pineapple plantations.

“I’m just so struck by this happening, right in my own backyard,” he added. “The likelihood that this plant would take, and then grow into a tree, is phenomenal.”