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A makrut (kaffir) lime tree with fruit
Here’s a fruit tree that’s generally not grown for its fruit at all – the makrut lime.

What you need to know about makrut lime

Name: makrut lime, kaffir lime, Thai lime (Citrus hystrix).

Height: around 2–3m.

Plant type: evergreen small tree.

Foliage: deep glossy green leaves with a distinct "waist", making them look like a two-part leaf.

Climate: tropical and sub-tropical sheltered locations in warm and cold temperate regions.

Soil: free-draining.

Position: full sun; will tolerate a small amount of shade. 

Flowering and fruiting: variable timing of both. Fruit is green, rounded and distinctly dimpled.

Feeding: annual feeding with controlled-release fertiliser. 

Watering: reliable moisture, especially during warm periods and fruit development.

Appearance and characteristics of makrut lime

Sometimes referred to as kaffir lime or Thai lime, the makrut lime is an essential ingredient in a host of Asian dishes. The leaves are commonly used, added as flavouring to curries and rice dishes, as well as a range of hot and cold beverages.

The fruit is not used as often, or perhaps not as conspicuously. The flesh tends to be quite dry, so it’s not generally used for eating fresh, and it takes a lot of work to extract any decent quantity of juice. Apparently, very respectable marmalade can be made with the whole fruit.

The rind, on the other hand, is an essential part of both red and green curry pastes and other Asian dishes, and it makes an excellent zest added to cakes. The juice and rind also have a range of other uses. They have a strong insecticidal effect, and are said to be good at repelling insects as well as killing head lice. The juice is used in cosmetics such as shampoo.

Makrut lime has a typical citrus-like appearance, with rich, glossy green leaves, although a noticeable difference is their near-segmented shape. They have almost an hourglass like shape with a pinched “waist”. The trees tend to be smaller and more compact than most citrus, usually growing to around 2–3m, though they do have the potential to reach 4+m. They are rarely seen at larger sizes, as frequent leaf harvesting works as tip pruning, resulting in a smaller and denser size and shape.

Makrut lime trees are known for having very nasty, long thorns. When you are shopping for a plant, look for varieties that have smaller spines. You’ll find that these are often better-flavoured forms, too.

Close-up of makrut (kaffir) lime tree with fruit and leaves
 

Uses for makrut lime

Makrut lime is grown for a variety of uses, including:

  • Grown for a range of culinary uses.
  • Can be trained very well as an espalier.
  • Thrives in large pots or tubs.
  • Prickly forms are useful planted as a barrier hedge.

How to plant and grow a makrut lime tree

A makrut lime needs full sun to just a little shade. it needs a position where it will have summer warmth and a mild winter. In colder regions, it will need protection from cold and frost, so plant it somewhere such as a warm courtyard or against a wall that will absorb heat during the day and radiate it back overnight. Avoid positions of wind exposure, especially if winds may be cold.

Ensure reliable moisture without being wet. As with all citrus, even short periods of waterlogging can kill them. Use a good-quality free-draining but reliably moist garden soil. In pots, use a premium organic potting mix or blend for fruit trees and edibles.

  1. Add compost or well-composted manure at planting time to add nutrients and improve water-holding capacity, especially in sandy soil. 
  2. Add a controlled-release fertiliser after planting.
  3. Mulch well with an organic product such as lucerne garden straw or pea straw. 
  4. If soil is poorly drained, create raised planting mounds above the problem areas. 

Caring for a makrut lime tree

Regular watering during dry periods and annual feeding with a controlled-release fertiliser for citrus is all that is really required.

How to prune a makrut lime tree

  1. When plants are young, train with the aim of creating a neat vase-like branching pattern.
  2. Remove any weak or non-productive branches.
  3. Thin out internal branches to maintain air circulation through the canopy.
  4. With grafted plants, watch for any shoots from below the graft and pinch them off.

Diseases and pests affecting makrut lime trees

Makrut lime is likely to suffer from the typical problems you would expect to find on other citrus. Watch for citrus leaf-miner and treat with an organic oil. Bronze-orange bugs can also be a problem in some regions, and large and small citrus butterfly caterpillars may attack leaves.

Propagation

How to grow makrut lime from seed 

Seed can be saved, cleaned and planted. Seed can take an extended time to germinate, and the resulting plants will be variable in their growth and fruiting characteristics. 

  1. Sow seed into a seed-raising mix or Jiffy-type pots.
  2. Keep warm and moist. Germination may take several months.

How to grow makrut lime from cuttings 

  1. Take semi-hardwood cuttings of around 10–15cm in length.
  2. Dip in a cutting gel or powder and keep slightly moist in a warm, shady location. 

Cutting grown plants from grafted trees may be more susceptible to root rots.

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