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Post details: Things I've Learned About Growing Etrog Trees

Things I've Learned About Growing Etrog Trees

Etrog Trees - Fun And Easy To Grow

I began growing Etrog trees as a kind of dare. Although I had grown Orange and Lemon trees before, and had fooled around with Etrogs a small bit, I'd never been serious about growing Etrogs, I'd never taken them full-term as I called it. I knew Etrogs could provide lots of challenges. The last few times I tried growing them, though, the germination rate was so low (<5%) and the survival rate over the next several months so poor (<10%), that I just gave up.

This time I was up to the challenge. I came prepared, having spoken with growers around the world about the correct way of doing things.

A few interesting things about Etrogs. The word Etrog is Aramaic, which means "delightful." The English equivalent word, Citron, is derived from the Greek word "Kedros" -- the same as "Hadar" in Hebrew -- which also means Citrus. Kedros was Latinized as Cedrus, which evolved into Citrus, and then Citron.

In Second Temple times, the Etrog was the only known Citrus fruit, according to Eliezer Goldschmidt, a horticulture professor at Hebrew University. As such, it was the only choice for the Sukkot ritual, as the Talmud states that every Jew should take the fruit of the Hadar tree.

Most Citrus species arrived in the Middle East from China and India, with the Citron first, followed by the Lemon and other Citrus species. The Etrog is still grown in Morocco and Italy. The Italian varieties are mostly Yanaverim types, and there are those who prefer the Italian Yanaver species of Etrog to the typical Israeli Etrog. "Some people believe that the Italian Etrog is the ultimate Etrog," Israeli grower Yaakov Charlap says.

Yanaver Type Seedling - 1 Year Old

Getting back to growing Etrogs.

This time, I began right after the last Sukka holiday, I pretty much followed the same routine I used when I grew other Citrus. After cutting the seeds out of the Etrog fruits, the seeds went down into the fridge for 10 days, followed by two weeks in the cool and dark basement.

After that, I put the seeds into Jiffy pots and placed the pots into covered sprouting trays, placed them on top of some boxes in the basement, and left everything in the basement by themselves, in the cool and dark.

Chazon Ish-Lefkowitz Type Seedlings - 1 Year Old

After about four weeks, the first sprouts came up, not too many, about four or five. The rest stayed dormant. I thought maybe I'd have the same luck as before, only about 5% germinating, the rest of the seeds rotting in their pots. Not so this time.

Temani Type Seedling - 1 Year Old

Over the next two months, the rest of the flock sprouted. The germination rate was nearly 90% for this crew, and the survival rate over the next month was nearly the same. Then I had more Etrog trees arrive. After a few weeks of novelty, other members of my congregation got over their excitement and "donated" their Etrogim to me. Suddenly I was now the owner of several dozen Etrog trees of several types: Yanaverim, Chazon Ish-Lefkowitz, Temani and a couple of other types, most notably a Braverman and two of the Halpern variety, all three of which died.

Comparison Of Types - (l to r): Chazon Ish-Lefkowitz, Temani, Yanaver
1 Year Old Seedlings

Comparison Of Types - (l to r): Orange, Chazon Ish-Lefkowitz, Temani, Yanaver
1 Year Old Seedlings

I've got to say that Etrog trees have turned out to be easier to grow than Lemons or Oranges. Regular Citrus is pretty sensitive to ozone, and the leaves burn easily from the acid rain we get in the Northeast here. Not Etrogs. To the tree, they remained robust and immune from the harmful effects of smog and the liquid corrosive that falls from our skies.

Some interesting findings:

I found the Etrog likes to hold on to all of its leaves, even the suckers at the bottom, which were the first leaves it put out. Other Citrus trees let these lower leaves get brown and fall off.

Leaf Roll On The Chazon Ish-Lefkowitz Type

The several dozen Chazon Ish-Lefkowitz type trees showed more leaf roll than the other Etrog tree types - other growers told me that the leaf roll didn't mean anything, and had to do more with the internal carbohydrate metabolism of the individual plant than anything else. I found that to indeed be the case. Leaf roll apparently is harmless, and disappears all by itself, whether or not you water or feed more, whether or not you put them in or out of the sun, or if you change the growing temperature.

Leaf Roll
Leaf Roll On The Chazon Ish-Lefkowitz Type

The Temani type Etrogs seemed to be more affected by leaf mites and chewers, but the insect chewing didn't seem to affect the trees' growth any. Just as robust.

Leaf Mite Chewing On The Temani Type

There's a growth stage early on, for all the Etrog trees. I call it the "weak-knees" stage. It occurs in the first two months after sprouting. In this stage the Etrog trees still have very thin stalks, which leads them to falling over a lot. I used plastic straws and paper clips to make non-binding supports to keep the plant upright. After this summer, the stalks got much thicker (>3mm) and each plant now self-supports.

All the Etrogs were heavy feeders. Some growers like Miracle Grow products, but the ones I spoke to like Bayer products. I used both companys' products this year. Each worked well. The Bayer tree mixture worked better than the Miracle Grow potting mix when I re-potted the plants, with the Yanaverim type of Etrogs having to be re-potted twice - they grew the tallest.

Feed Weekly - Repot Often

Etrogs are seriously limited by pot size. They get pot-bound pretty quick, and if you want them to grow bigger, you've GOT to repot them. Unlike other trees and plants, such as a Christmas Cactus, which grows and grows, regardless of the size of the pot it's in, the Etrog will self-limit it's growth, growing to no larger a size than the pot can support.

I grew the Etrogs in plastic and terra cotta pots - doesn't seem to make much difference. Just be sure to run old pots through dishwasher so you "won't bring mistakes of the past into the present."

All in all, Etrog trees seem to be fairly immune to the things that affect the morbidity of other Citrus. By the end of Elul, most (95%) of my original Etrog trees were alive and well. My sixty other citrus though, were either seriously sick or dead: out of the original sixty Lemon and Orange trees, only 10 survived (<17%).

An Orange Seedling - 1 Year Old
Note The Browning & Spotting On Leaves
Caused By Ozone & Acid Rain

Some more specifics: Etrog leaves are ovoid, very slight toothing on edge, with somewhat shiny tops and a slight bend in center. Etrog leaves are not floppy or soft like Orange or Lemon trees (they also have a much different toothing pattern and shape). There is small difference in the shape of the leaves per variety of Etrog, such as wider leaves towards the ends of the leaf with the Yanaverim type.

Some of the people I corresponded with last September told me their Etrog leaves emitted an aroma of lemon. I found that the mature leaf does not have an aroma, even if you rub the leaf. While young leaves have a very faint aroma of lemon, you still have to rub them somewhat even to bring that out.

No Lemon Pledge Aroma Here

Interestingly enough, sparrows and wrens, and other small birds like to hide and cool off in the summer around the etrogs. It didn't matter where I had put them, the birds found them and parked there. They might like the aroma, which we may not be able to smell, or something else. Many times, I'd go out to the etrog patch, and the plants would be surrounded in and out by dozens of sparrows and other small birds.

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