The Kaffir* lime tree (Citrus hystrix), also known as makrut lime, is commonly grown for use in Asian cuisine. While this dwarf citrus tree, reaching up to 5 feet (1.5 m.) tall, can be grown outdoors (year round in USDA zones 9-10), it is best suited for indoors. The Kaffir lime tree thrives in potted environments and would benefit from placement out on the patio or deck; however, its container needs to provide adequate drainage.
Kaffir Lime Leaves
The glossy, dark green leaves of the Kaffir lime tree are quite distinctive. Kaffir lime leaves look like two leaves joined together, as one appears to grow from the tip of the other. Kaffir lime leaves are most often used as an essential ingredient for flavoring many Asian dishes such as soups, curries and fish.
They can be used fresh off the tree or from dried leaves. Kaffir lime leaves can also be frozen to retain their freshness. Picking the leaves every few weeks may help encourage growth. Crushing Kaffir lime leaves will release their fragrant oils, which emit an intense citrus aroma.
About Kaffir Limes
Kaffir limes are about the size of Western limes. They are dark green with a bumpy surface. In order for the Kaffir lime tree to produce any limes, be sure to provide plenty of light for flowering.
Because they produce very little juice, the juice and flesh of Kaffir limes is rarely used, but the sour-tasting rind can be finely grated and used for flavoring dishes. Fresh Kaffir limes can be frozen using freezer bags and used as needed.
Kaffir limes have many household uses as well, including cleaning and hair conditioning.
Kaffir lime trees are generally not bothered by many pest problems but may become susceptible to mites or scale if left near infected plants.
Although it is possible to grow Kaffir lime trees from seed, this method is often difficult to achieve. Likewise, grafted trees tend to bloom and bear fruit earlier than seedlings.
Kaffir Lime Tree Care
Despite the fact that Kaffir lime trees are tolerant of less than ideal conditions, there are specific needs that should be met for optimal growth.
Kaffir limes prefer full sun in moist, well-drained soil. If grown indoors, keep near a sunny window. The Kaffir lime tree appreciates water and somewhat humid conditions during the growing season. Keep in mind, however, that this tree is prone to root rot if kept too wet, so allow the soil to dry out some between waterings. Regular misting helps with humidity levels.
Kaffir lime trees are cold sensitive and need to be protected from frost. Therefore, these plants should be brought indoors during winter if they are grown outside. They enjoy indoor temperatures around 60 F. (16 C.) or above, especially during winter months.
Prune the lime tree while young to encourage branching and a more bushy plant.
*NOTE: The word “kafir” was originally used to refer to non-Muslims, but was later adopted by white colonialists to describe people of color or slaves. Because of this, “Kaffir” is deemed in some regions as a derogatory and insulting term. It is important to note, however, that its reference in this article is NOT intended to offend anyone but is simply referencing the Kaffir lime tree for which it is commonly known in North America.
Propagating and growing a kaffir lime tree from cuttings is actually simple and easy.
Nature is so cool! It’s so easy to grow one plant and from that plant’s seeds or stalks, to propagate an endless supply of more. Plant propagation can produce an endless supply of free plants cloned from parent plants.
Have you heard of the exotic Kaffir Lime tree? You can see it pictured in the cover image. Sometimes called a Thai Lime Tree, the Kaffir lime plant has thick bumpy-skinned limes that are often used in Thai curries. Interestingly, it’s the tangy citrus flavored leaves and tart skin of the kaffir lime that is used in Thai cooking.
Kaffir lime is a great choice for indoor container gardening.
However, bergamot, is a different plant and seems harder to come by here in North America. Reported to have medicinal properties bergamot is worth looking into as well. 1  https://www.herbwisdom.com/herb-bergamot-orange.html  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4345801/
Easy to Grow
Anyway, back to Kaffir Lime, it’s very easy to grow and propagate from cuttings, which is a much faster process than trying to grow them from seeds. You can actually buy Kaffir lime plants on Amazon, and make many more or your own!
The exotic kaffir lime plant is easy to grow in pots from cuttings.
While commercial growers generally start seeds in the spring, if you're growing the Kaffir lime as a houseplant, you can start seeds any time of the year. Simply bury the fresh seeds in moist potting soil, planting them 1/2 to 3/4 inch deep. Placing the flowerpot in a brightly lit location where the temperature remains between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit speeds the seeds' germination.
Kaffir lime seeds germinate in 12 to 15 days when kept warm and moist. Many gardeners cover the flowerpot with plastic wrap to help maintain the humidity level necessary to sprout this subtropical tree. Once the seedlings appear, the plastic is removed. Placing the flowerpot on a tray filled with pebbles and water helps keep the humidity high enough for the Kaffir lime tree to thrive.
Growing a Kaffir Lime Tree in a Container
Select a container to place the kaffir lime tree that is three times bigger than the container the tree was purchased in. The tree will need plenty of space for the roots to spread out and not be bunched. Otherwise, the tree can develop round root, which is a condition that happens when the container is too small. The tree can become stunted and never grow properly.
- Water the kaffir lime tree every other day for the first two weeks.
- From then on, water the tree on a regular basis, but do not continuously keep the soil flooded.
Fill the container with a well-draining potting medium, such as a potting mix with sphagnum in it. If you use straight potting soil, the medium will be too thick and not drain properly, leading to root rot.
Place the container outside or on a porch during the warmer months. When the weather is turning cold, bring the container inside to a protected area.
Water the container regularly, but do not keep it continuously flooded. Use a water-soluble fertilizer on the lime tree once per month. Set the container outside during rainy weather so it can benefit from natural humidity. Kaffir lime trees grow best in humid conditions.
Kaffir lime leaves
A kaffir lime leaf is glossy and green. The leaves have two separate sections. The top is pointed, while the bottom is much broader, although both sizes can vary.
The trees produce edible leaves. Makrut leaves have highly fragrant aroma. Most people who grow these trees do so because of the leaves.
There are many kaffir lime leaf recipes. The leaves are a sought-out ingredient in Indonesian, Thai and other Asian dishes. Kaffir lime leaves are an incredibly popular, as you can use them similar to other seasonings, like bay leaf. There are many ways to use kaffir leaves.
kaffir lime leaves
Kaffir lime leaves uses
Think of using these lime leaves like you use bay leaves. The most popular use of this ingredient is in fragrant dishes, such as curries and soups. You can add the leaves to sauces, noodle dishes, and stir-fry meals.
Adding keffir leaves add unique flavor. You can use the leaves as toppers for stews and curries for flavor and visual appeal.
Many people seek out kaffir lime leaves substitutes because the flavor is so desirable. Bay leaves lack the citrus notes. Therefore, a substitute should include a combination of bay leaves, lime zest, and lemon thyme.
Interestingly, makrut is a fantastic ingredient for health and beauty products, as well as cleaning agents. They have an exceptionally fragrant nature, which makes them an excellent addition to household cleaners.
It is also known to be a suitable conditioner for your hair, leaving a zesty aroma after you apply it.
Another use for kaffir leaves is potpourri. Dry the leaves and use them around the home for their scent.
There are many kaffir leaf drink recipes. Or you can DIY your own. If you want to get even more creative, consider infusing it into a simple syrup for a gin cocktail.
Uses for kaffir limes
The kaffir lime itself is useful in Asian cuisines. Grate the rind and use it as a flavoring agent in the same way you would use the kaffir leaves.
K-limes are round with dark green coloring. They also have a distinctive nipple and a knobby rind that can look very wrinkled. This makes makruts easy to distinguish from other limes.
One of its most common names is “porcupine orange,” especially as the rind lightens to a yellow-green tone as it ages.
Although it has a lemon-lime flavoring, the fruit juice isn’t the most-used part. Instead, most dishes take advantage of kaffir lime leaves and the rind’s zest, especially in curries.
It has a perfume-like flavor profile s scale, as it’s more acidic than spicy.
Where to buy kaffir lime leaves
When you begin shopping for lime leaves, you’ll want to make sure you’re choosing the most fragrant ones. When touched, you’ll be able to feel the overwhelming natural oils, so you’ll want to use them fresh. The leaves should have a deep green color and a smooth texture.
You can typically find fresh leaves from specialty shops, as they are processed using unique techniques. These stores ensure the leaves are preserved correctly to be used fresh.
Alternatively, you can purchase powdered lime leaves or dried leaves, depending availability and budget. You can find them online as well.
How to pair makrut limes
The best way to figure out how to use makrut in your dishes is to think of bay leaf. It’s an ingredient that is most often paired with curries, stocks, and stir-fries.
The best part is that if you find dried leaves, the wetness releases their flavor once added to a moist dish. Chefs also love adding lime leaves to sugar syrups and pickling juice because of its unique acidity.
At first, it might seem like an unusual ingredient, but it’s an essential component to many Asian dishes. A few of our favorite pairings with these limes include:
- Thai-style haddock
- Galangal broth
- Pickled cucumber
- Mussel broth
You might also find that it can be combined with sweeter ingredients, such as papaya, coconut, and cardamom.
Types of Limes
Key limes are a form of Mexican lime. Source: Skakerman
Mexican lime trees produce one of the most commonly found limes in the US and have many names including the key lime tree. Their fruit is the most commonly found lime in the supermarket with green flesh and slightly smaller than a lemon. The Citrus aurantifolia is also known as the West Indian lime and can grow to be a 15 ft. tall tree that lives up to 150 years! A very cold-sensitive tree with a dense crown, this is a great option for growers in warmer climates looking for a tree that can provide both fruit and shade. This is a great citrus type to add to guacamole or pico de gallo!
A rare type of Indo-Malayan lime, this slightly larger variety of lime citrus is actually a bit bigger than the standard lime and is only mature once it turns a pale yellow. Measuring 6 centimeters wide, it is in season from the middle of fall through winter. A rare type of lime tree, this type of lime can be used interchangeably with a key lime when making key lime pie due to its tart yet sweet flavor.
Australian Finger Lime
Finger limes are long and slender, filled with lots of round juicy pulp bits. Source: Premshree Pillai
The Australian finger lime or Microcitrus australasica is also known as the caviar lime for the small spherical insides of the fruit, called vesicles, and ooze out once a ripe finger lime has been cut into. This type of citrus tree is from Australia and has a tubular dark green exterior about 3 in. long and a very pale green interior. This type of lime tree is new to the American market but is increasingly popular for its very strong taste. It’s increasingly common to find these fruits in cocktails and other gourmet drinks.
As an ornamental lime tree, this fast-growing fruit tree can reach up to 20 feet in height and is quite beautiful. The leaves are pretty small and compact with thorn covered branches and delicate white flowers.
Tahiti Lime: Persian Lime
Also a type of Tahiti lime tree, the Persian lime along with the Bearss is the most commonly sold type of lime in the US. This widely grown lime tree is also a cross between a key lime and a lemon tree and yellows when it reaches full ripeness. For the home grower, this tree can get up to 20 ft. tall and can even grow branches with thorns on it. It grows well in zones 9-11 and is less acidic than other varieties of lime trees.
Tahiti Lime: Bearss Lime
Tahiti lime trees come in two main varieties. One of them, the Bearss lime tree which grows in California and is seedless, is a dark green lime that matures at a light green almost yellow color. It’s a cross between a key lime tree and a lemon tree. The main crop arrives in winter and goes through the late spring. It has a long shelf life helping it to dominate the commercial market. It’s closely related to the Persian lime which is the Florida-grown variation of the Tahiti lime tree.
The blood lime is distinctly red-toned as it ripens. Source: cskk
A very rare type of citrus, blood limes, Citrus australiasica var. sanguinea are grown almost exclusively in Australia. Named for their blood-red rind, this was a hybrid that was created to be salt-resistant for a specific region of Australia. With smaller and sweeter fruits than the standard lime, this interesting citrus tree can also be grown as an ornamental.
The kaffir lime tree is also known by its more politically correct name the ‘Makrut lime tree’ due to the racist origins of the word ‘kaffir’ by English colonists. Make sure to wear gloves when collecting this fruit from these lime trees! It gets its Latin name of Citrus hystrix from the word hystrix which means hedgehog, referring to the thorny branches growing all over the tree. Take care when harvesting the fruits from this lime tree, as those thorns can get pretty sharp!
Originally from Indonesia, both the limes and the leaves of the plant are used. Unlike with most other lime trees, this fruit is not grown for its juice, but rather the zest of the odd-looking bumpy rind and the tasty leaves that are both commonly used in Thai and Indonesian food.
The kaffir lime tree needs a lot of warmth and humidity, growing in zones 10-12, it can grow up to 25 feet tall.
Rangpur limes are an unusual hybrid with sweet-tart flavor. Source: Forest & Kim
Also known by two different names, the Ranpur lime tree or Mandarin lime tree looks more like a mandarin than a lime. The color of an orange both inside and out, the Citrus x. limonia osbeck originates from Bangladesh and can surprisingly be used interchangeably with fruits from other lime trees.
Sometimes called the Calamondin lime tree, this hybrid type of lime comes from the Philippines and also has orange-colored flesh. The juice of this citrus fruit is sour, but it’s prized for the rind which is sweet. While it looks like a tangerine, it is in fact a lime!
The lemon-lime tree is actually two trees in one. This modern-day convenience is actually a mixing of the Meyer lemon trees and fragrant key lime trees. This plant was created for the family garden to maximize space and flavor. These trees are often grown in a container in cooler zones and brought indoors in the fall, this self-fertile plant grows both limes and lemons.
Lime Tree Tips
Bearss limes are some of the most common on the market. Source: Starr
Lime trees are heavy feeders and need regular feeding. If using chemical fertilizer or an organic granular fertilizer, apply three times a year around the base of the plant and water it into the soil. Lime trees need nitrogen to help with leaf growth, as well as phosphorus to produce flowers. They also need magnesium, boron, copper, and zinc in order for the fruits to develop well.
If you choose to care for your lime trees with an organic fertilizer like compost or manure, it’s best to fertilize more frequently. As with most citrus trees, don’t fertilize until the plant has been established and several inches of growth appear on the tips of branches.
Lime trees, in general, do well with infrequent but deep watering with more care during a hot summer and much less during winter. As a lime tree can easily die in standing water, less is more.
A way to tell that your lime trees need water is by checking the top few inches of soil. If it’s dry, water slowly but deeply to allow the soil time to absorb the water. If growing in containers, make sure that the container is not in a tray of standing water. To water deeply, install a drip line or soaker hose so that water can slowly sink through the soil.
Make sure to give your lime tree regular prunings. Generally, once a year or every other is all that is needed, but a few key parts of the tree need to be removed.
Just like with other fruit trees, remove wood that is growing crossed or tangled as this can create a habitat that attracts pests. Additionally, remove wood that is dead or diseased. Make sure to use clean and disinfected loppers as diseases can be transferred by a dirty blade when cutting.
Calamansi are technically limes, even though they don’t look like limes. Source: Rosa Say
Many types of citrus trees suffer from cold damage, and limes are no exception. Most limes are not cold hardy and in zones below zone 9 need to be grown in a pot or container and brought indoors before a frost. The key lime can have severe damage in just 30 minutes of the cold air!
Make sure to keep an eye on evening temperatures as this is when cold temperatures drop the most. If you can’t bring in your lime trees, you can make sure to protect them by wrapping sheets or frost blankets around the branches and trunk of the tree.
When to Plant
Finding a sunny spot is the most important rule to keep in mind when planting your lime trees. Keep in mind that different spots of the garden can get more sun at different times of the year. Take care to create a planting area that will drain well and free of pooling water.
Planting should happen either in the late spring or early fall for the plant’s best shot at thriving. Lime trees need temperate weather conditions to encourage root growth before they can make it through the chill of winter or particularly hot summer.
Kaffir limes are distinctly bumpy with fragrant leaves. Source: wallyg
Citrus trees, limes included, can be propagated by taking a cutting of the plant and placing it in a rooting medium of soil or sand with good drainage.
You’ll want at least a 6 to 8 inch long cutting from a healthy and vigorous branch. Remove most of the leaves except for 2 or 3 so the cutting can put its energy into growing roots. It’s common for roots to develop after two months at which time you can harden it off and transplant outside.
Limes trees can be attacked by a wide variety of pests from leaf miners to aphids, mites, and even scale insects.
One of the best ways to prevent infestations is to keep your lime trees well pruned so that air can circulate between the leaves and branches. Try using organic methods to battle pests such as neem oil and insecticidal soaps to kill and prevent scale, mites, and aphids.