The Case of the Mysterious Citrus, Week Ending 11/18/2018

It’s mid-November and the foraging season is winding down in the mid-Atlantic region. We had our first major snow last week – five inches locally! – which is unheard of, to have this much accumulation prior to the Thanksgiving holiday. [Insert gratuitous climate change remark here…]

But I am not done posting! This week I will share with you the case of the mysterious citrus: the single strangest wild forage I found the entire year. Like the chinkapins from last week, I have never found reference to this plant in the (mumble) foraging books I have read.

In fact, I had no idea that citrus of ANY sort could be grown in Maryland, much less occur naturally, of its own accord, in the wild.

Meet: the flying dragon citrus. Also known as the trifoliate orange (Citrus trifoliata or maybe Poncirus trifoliata). I first stumbled upon this spiky guy back in August while stalking the local pawpaw groves to determine which had the best fruit.

Mysterious citrus
Mysterious citrus

There was no mistaking the plant was citrus. But at the time, that was all I knew. I noted the soft downy surface of the green globe; its three-lobed leaf; and the wicked sharp thorns. (OK, maybe I felt them more than I saw them!) But… what was it?

And how did it get here? I was also baffled by how this plant ended up growing wild so close to my home. Did someone toss a fruit out their car window while driving through the woods? How do citrus normally spread anyway? None of it made any sense.

Fast forward another month. In late September, I attended the 3rd annual Pawpaw Festival in Frederick MD, hosted by permaculturist and published author Michael Judd. While touring the property, I noticed a citrus tree/shrub growing out in the open, in agricultural zone 7a/6b. I had recently purchased a Meyer lemon, which is only hardy to Zones 8 – 11 so it must be taken inside to overwinter. It was odd, I thought, to plant a citrus plant outside like this, but I failed to connect this tree, in a permaculture context, and the wild plant growing less than a mile from my house.

A citrus at Longcreek Homestead
A citrus at Longcreek Homestead

Over a month later, Mr. Judd (@permacultureninja) posted to Instagram the final clue to my puzzle – a name.




I love the name, and even better, I love knowing that the name belongs to the soft fuzzy fruit and piercing thorns.

After the snow and ice last week, I decided to go check on my local flying dragon citrus (FDC). I was impressed to find that it didn’t just withstand the cold; it seemed to thrive. The frost damage to the neighboring foliage made it even easier to see the fruit and its dark green leaves against its dull brown surroundings. Flying dragon citrus is deciduous unlike the “regular” citrus plants which are evergreens. However these specimens kept their color long past everything surrounding it.

In the following photo, the green three-part leaves and ripe orange fruit stand out in stark contrast from the tree the citrus has gotten tangled in.

Flying Dragon Citrus in the wild
Flying Dragon Citrus in the wild

A lot of fruit had fallen from the plant already – again, the distinguishing characteristic of ripe fruit this late in the year. Any other fruit dangling within reach likewise fell from the tree with the slightest touch.

Underneath its branches, we found multiple offspring, demonstrating that this plant (or plants?) was very fertile.

Baby Dragon (Citrus trifoliata)
Baby Dragon (Citrus trifoliata)

Since so many of the fruit were ripe, I felt it was my privilege, nay my duty, to take a few fruit to help spread the seeds to new locations (such as my yard).

This photo shows the size of an average FDC fruit compared to a key lime  in my hand.

Flying Dragon Citrus compared to a Key Lime
Flying Dragon Citrus compared to a Key Lime

In addition to the small size, note the lack of reflection on the wild fruit. While a certain amount of shine on the key lime could be a waxy coating used on commercial citrus, the FDC’s appearance is also muted by its soft downy skin.

The flavor of the FDC fruit is less piquant than a lime or lemon, yet more tart than an orange. The seeds in the ripe fruit are huge compared to the juice vesicles, similar to a bitter orange (Citrus aurantium) rather than the more common grocery store offerings (Citrus limon and the Citrus limon x latifolia hybrid which is the fruit most commonly sold as “lime”). The flavor has an underlying hint of spice which adds depth  beyond the simple “sweet” or “sour” we expect of citrus in our modern world.

And yes, I planted the oversized seeds. It’s what I do…


  1. Agricultural zones 7b/6a, and 8-11? Forager-speak must be its own lingo like tech-talk (git, K8S, JDT oh my!)

  2. The USDA agricultural zones give a rough approximation of the average minimum winter temperature of a particular region. This helps us know (or ignore) which plants will do well in a given zone. For instance, in zone 6a the average minimum winter temperature is -5 F. So my poor Meyer lemon will never make it outdoors!

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