Home   Blog   Classes   Trips   More   back

Grow Your Own Kaffir Lime Tree

Kasma Loha-unchit, March 27th, 2010

Grow Your Own Kaffir Lime Tree for a Ready Supply of Aromatic Leaves

Ever thought about growing your own kaffir lime tree? Here are some good reasons why.

Kasma's Kaffir Lime Tree

Kasma's kaffir lime tree

Sunshine, warmth and the longer days of spring has brought my precious little kaffir* (see note at end of article) lime tree back to life. After shivering for several months in the cold and dark days of winter, this tropical gem has begun to sprout delicate bronzy leaves at the tips of its numerous branches while tiny purplish white flower buds form on other stems. To my relief, it has survived yet another winter.

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Slivering Kaffir Lime Leaves

Slivering kaffir lime leaves

The double leaves and knobby fruits of the kaffir lime tree are very important flavorings in Southeast Asian cuisines. Their unsurpassed perfume has no equivalent, and therefore, they cannot be substituted with other citrus varieties.

The leaves are used much like bay leaves to flavor soups, wet curries, sauces and stews. For dryer curries and stir-fries, they are finely slivered and tossed in with the foods to give them an aromatic punch and depth of flavor. In the popular hot-and-sour soup served in all Thai restaurants, kaffir lime leaves combine with lemon grass to give the broth a delightful herbal bouquet. (See Kasma’s Hot & Sour Prawn Soup recipe.)

Preparing Kaffir Lime Peel

Preparing kaffir lime peel

As for the fruit, the even more aromatic peel is minced and pounded with other herbs and spices to make curry pastes. Together with lemon grass and galangal, it is one of the essential foundation flavors of many Thai and Cambodian curries. (See Making a Curry Paste from Scratch) The sour juice is aromatic, too, but is seldom used in cooking, as its strong perfume can be distracting in dishes that require a sharp limy sour flavor. It is instead used in cleansers, shampoos and medicinal preparations.

But alas, this prized ingredient of Southeast Asian cuisines is not easy to find, especially if you are non-Asian. Only a handful of Bay Area stores carry them fresh or frozen, and although the dried leaves and peel are more readily available, they are often not clearly identified on the packaging. Asking for them by name may elicit from Asian shopkeepers the confusing response that kaffir lime products are illegal and that they do not carry them.

Ingredients for a Thai Dish

Ingredients for a Thai dish

Illegal? These shopkeepers are not pulling your leg but are protecting themselves. It is indeed illegal to import any kind of citrus into California without approval of state agricultural authorities. The California citrus crop is all too important a source of state revenues to risk the entry of any suspicious tropical bug which might wipe out the citrus groves.

Eighteen or more years ago, agricultural agents were brutal in confiscating all kaffir lime products they could get their hands on from Asian markets. In those days, Southeast Asians had a difficult time cooking their cuisines. But it was not entirely impossible to locate them. They were sold “under the counter” and the proper password is needed to acquire any from a “dealer.”

Thai Ingredients, Ready to Pound

Thai Ingredients, ready to pound

Those difficult days fortunately passed as immigrants began cultivating kaffir lime orchards in the central valley. Now California-grown, kaffir lime seemed to have gained a legal immigrant status. The ensuing years found the lime more readily available from Southeast Asian markets mushrooming all over the state – until recently, when state agricultural authorities went on the rampage again.

But aren’t these leaves now grown in California? Yes, but agricultural officials can’t tell whether the leaves in the unlabeled plastic pouches found in mom-and-pop Southeast Asian markets are actually California grown or smuggled in from abroad.

Green Curry Paste

Green curry paste with kaffir lime peel

If you have trouble finding kaffir lime leaves as many of my students do, my advice is to grow your own. Four Winds, a specialty citrus grower, in Fremont supplies  Bay Area nurseries with kaffir lime trees. Ask any nursery near your home to order you one, preferably in a more established five-gallon size. Or if you prefer, you can order it yourself from Four Winds Growers (opens in new window) in California. Plant in a warm sheltered location in your garden either in full sun or partial shade. If there is danger of frost in your area, plant in a large container that can be moved indoors on cold winter days.

Kasma's Tree

Fruit and leaf on Kasma's tree

Once established, the plant will grow abundant leaves during the warm summer months and a handful of limes. Prune during the active growing season to encourage bushiness, using the prunings in your summer Thai cooking spree and freezing the extras for the winter months when your plant goes dormant. Both leaves and fruit freeze well for up to a year when wrapped well in a few layers of plastic.

*A South African friend has informed me that the word “kaffir” is a very offensive word to non-whites on the continent from where she came. I have no idea how the word became the English name associated with this lime, but in Southeast Asia it is called something entirely different: makrut (Thailand), jeruk purut (Indonesia), daun limau purut (Malaysia and Singapore), krauch soeuch (Cambodia) and shauk-waing (Burma). I apologize for using the word “kaffir” to refer to the lime in this article; it is not my intention to offend anyone but to refer to it by the most common name by which you may be able to locate it in the Bay Area.

If you’re interested in growing your own kaffir lime tree, check out Kasma’s extensive article:

See also:

Order a kaffir lime tree from:

You might enjoy:

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, March 2010.

Return to top