Leeks, Tomatoes, Chayotes
Late Blight Resistance--Tomato Trials

A Perplexing Plant Name

For this week's column I have been writing about the lime that is used in Thai cooking, Citrus hystrix. It is primarily the leaf that is used, and it is said to have a unique and wonderful aroma and flavor. The peel of the fruit is second most used, and the juice probably last. I've never used any part of the plant, and have always wondered if I could grow it. I have learned that the plant, while it is a tropical citrus, needing more warmth than many other kinds, has been grafted onto roots of less tropical citrus plants, which makes it better able to handle our somewhat colder soils and air, and that it can grow, and even fruit, in San Francisco and other coastal locations, given that it is planted where it will get sun on a sunny day and is watered and fertilized adequately.

But here is the question. It is often called the Kaffir lime. "Kaffir" is a highly objectionable word meaning, variously, a non-muslim or a non-white person. One place the word has been used (not so much anymore) is in South Africa. (Another plant given that name is the "Kaffir lily." That plant is the orange lily that blooms in shade, Clivia miniata. To escape from the objectionable name, we just call it Clivia.)

I have a lot of questions about the name. The plant is originally from Thailand. I don't think that's where it picked up this name, but where could it be from? Was this plant being grown in south Africa at some point?

A second perplexity is that Sunset Western Garden and other Sunset pubications call the plant the Kieffer lily. Very interesting. I wonder where this name came from. I suspect it is just a similar-sounding word that someone started using, but there is no trace of evidence about the name change, when and where?  

Well, we can't just call it "lime" because there are other limes. And we can't just call it "citrus." In Thailand they call it "magrood" or "magrud," neither of which are names that would be recognized by most of us here.

I'm glad we are retiring objectionable names for any person, and I'm happy to call the plant a Kieffer lime, but it is the history of the name that I find interesting. Anyone have any info about this?


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John Valenzuela

If I had to get just one citrus tree, the Meyer Lemon has got to be the most productive, and popular. Some find it to be too mild, as it is thought to be a lemon X orange hybrid.

You can get someone to graft one branch with a Thai lime and have something special. A fellow named Joe Real has over 80 grafts of different citrus on one tree. Quite a feat considering varied growth rates. But just one branch would be manageable.

When your Meyer tree gets big enough, get in touch, and I would be glad to graft a branch for you.

Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener

I call it combava, which is its name on French Reunion Island where I am from. I am in Virginia and grow it in a pot moved inside for the winter. It likes it on the warmish side, so SF might be a little cool for it.

More info on combava here (as well as a recipe)


Thanks to all of you for your comments. I had some clues about the name, but was lacking information to make the story clear. The Chronicle ended up calling it "magrud" also known as kaffir lime. I had called it a Kieffer lime, and written them a note about the name. Thai lime is good.
All this writing about it makes me wish I had one, but I am probably going to get a dwarf Meyer lemon, and that is probably the only room I have for a citrus plant. Sounds wonderful though.

Ray Bruman

I bought one of these trees about 12 years ago from
Four Winds during a tour there with the California
Rare Fruit Growers, and planted it in my yard in the
Berkeley flat lands, near Shattuck and Ashby. It's on
dwarfing rootstock, so it's only about 6 feet tall, but it
is doing fine and has recently been producing dozens
of fruits, with a juice that tastes better than I expected.
I have only used that to season avocado sandwiches, but
as you know, it is a popular infusion in vodka these days.
It doesn't seem to be especially frost-tender.

John Valenzuela

In regards to your question about the origins of one the common name for Citrus hystrix. I believe we have confused the descriptive use of the word kaffir by Muslims to describe the fruit, and the terribly offensive use of the term in South Africa to describe people. Same word, different meanings, in different places.

You may find the following passage interesting, taken from an article on limes by the 'Fruit Detective'.

Latest Green Fashions Come in Many Styles
Published: January 14, 2004


The fruit's name, however, remains problematic, because kaffir, originally an Arabic word for unbeliever, is used by whites in South Africa as a derogatory term for blacks. The name kaffir lime derives from Asia rather than South Africa, perhaps from Indian Muslims who encountered the fruit as an import from Thailand and Sri Lanka, where non-Muslims predominated. Nevertheless, the term is offensive to some, and the Thai name, makrut, is sometimes used as a substitute.

Thus, Mr. Karp suggests that the name for the fruit originated with Muslims in India who used the name to describe the fruit as being from East Asian (Thailand and Sri Lanka) non-believers or 'kaffir'. This original usage of the word is a descriptive, and not particularly offensive, term used by Muslims.

The extremely derogatory and insulting usage of the term is really only known in South Africa, but out of respect to those who may be offended, I prefer to use the term 'Thai lime'.


Very interesting to know it will survive even up there. How big is your plant?

Look for more on this plant in my column, Golden Gate Gardener, in the SF Chronicle on Sunday, March 1.

Tim in Albion

Can't help about the name, but I am growing one of these in a graden on the Mendocino coast. It isn't exactly thriving, but it's still alive after two winters. With better protection from our winds, I think it might do okay here. One thing I've noticed is it really likes to be kept well watered.

I do use the leaves in Thai dishes, where they lend a nice subtle lime aroma.

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