Sunday, November 11, 2012

Tutorial: How to pollinate a lemon tree

This is my dwarf Meyer lemon tree. It lives outdoors in the spring, summer, and fall, and comes inside my office to spend the winter. Usually once it comes inside it has some ripening fruit...but also some blossoms for the next fruit cycle. Since the tree is now inside, it needs to be pollinated by me! Call me foolish but it took me a few seasons to figure all of this out. I apologize in advance for not giving the proper scientific names for these plant parts! Why don't these trees come with a manual? Why don't children come with a manual? Why am I so dependent on directions? Er....getting back to pollination:

For people who already know how to do this, the pictures and directions may seem like overkill. But for those who don't know how, it takes a little practice to see the different between the two flower types, just like when you first started gardening and ALL the seedling plants looked the same! A little experience with the kinds of blossoms will hopefully teach your eyes to distinguish the difference, but once you learn it I think it stays with you always. Besides, if you already know how to do this, why are you reading this post? 

There are two kinds of flowers on this lemon tree. I believe the female flower is the one that will actually become the fruit. This flower has a long, thick stem-like structure exactly in the middle of the flower petals. It has a small knob at the end. Before pollination, this knob is white in color. After pollination, the knob becomes distinctly yellow. On the photo below the female flower is the lower blossom, pointing downward. The upper flower (surely the male!) has no middle structure. Instead it has fringy, vibrantly yellow center petalets (my word, like it?) that are heavy with loads of pollen. If you jolt the branch, pollen takes to the air and drifts around, coating the leaves and everything else in the room (the computers do not like this). 

Below shows an unpollinated female's not bright yellow yet. Sorry so photography is tricky with my camera.

Below is another picture, this one with two pollinated female flowers. See the middle structure? (okay, I found it now...that middle structure is the pistil)

The closest I can get with my camera....female flower with pistil. 

To pollinate, grab a Q-tip. Even cheap ones with work for this, although I have discovered they are pretty much useless for any other job. Stick the end of the Q-tip right inside that male plant (stop laughing!) and roll it around real good, coat that Q-tip with pollen! It doesn't seem to go as far as you would think.

This is supposed to be a picture of the Q-tip with pollen. Little tiny grains of pollen on it! In the background is a half-grown lemon. Yes, I know it looks like a lime. Why does everybody say that? Do I strike people as unable to distinguish lemons from limes? This tree has lived with me for years, give me the benefit of the doubt! This is what lemons look like before they look like lemons :)

Last step! Carry the pollinated Q-tip to a female flower pistil and rub that pollen all over it - I know, this is awfully weird and kinky! Thus is the sex life of plants. Orchids are even worse, trust me! Once the pistil is bright yellow, you should be done. I think. I am still learning here, myself. 

If you did it right, in a few days or a week (I don't time it!) the petals and other parts will fall off and you will see a bump at the base of the pistil. This is the baby lemon! I have noticed that sometimes these babies will also fall off, I don't know if it's because they just weren't pollinated enough, if they have something wrong with them, or if the tree just has too many to feed. Just make sure you have pollinated as many female flowers as possible, as you can always remove some fruit later if the tree is unable to grow that many. Also as with any fruiting plant, the more fruit you have will often mean smaller fruit. It's a fine balancing act between fruit quantity and fruit size!