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How do I Grow a Key Lime Tree?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 16, 2024
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A key lime tree that produces fruit is a coveted possession, so despite its love for warm climates, people want to grow it outside its natural habitat. Key limes are yellower than the more common Persian lime, and people prize the fruit not only for making key lime pie, mousse, coulis, ice cream, sorbet, pudding, yogurt, cookies, tarts, and other desserts, but also as a compliment to seafood such as salmon, swordfish, striped bass, shrimp, lobster, and red snapper. It is also used in martinis, mojitos, ginger cup, and in Ke Ke Beach Key Lime Cream Liqueur, whence its nickname, Bartender’s Lime.

The key lime is in the Rutaceae family and is called Citrus aurantifolia, which means golden-leaved citrus. The fruit is 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5 cm) in diameter and has a unique flavor among the limes. In the United States, it is closely associated with the Florida Keys, hence its popular name, but it is also known as Tahitian lime or West Indian lime—Mexican lime is actually a different species.

The key lime is native to Southeast Asia. It apparently traveled from there to North Africa, from there to the European countries on the Mediterranean, and was brought by Spanish explorers to the Caribbean, including the West Indies and the keys of Florida. Later, it spread to Mexico, northern Florida, and California. Today key limes that are sold as food are grown in Texas, California, Mexico, and Central America.

There are several ways to grow a key lime tree, partly depending on where you live. If you live in USDA Zone 10 or higher, you can grow definitely grow a key lime tree outdoors, but experts vary in recommending it as an outdoor plant for Zone 9: some do and some don’t. North of Zone 9 or 10, container planting is recommended. When it is warm enough, you can move the key lime tree outside if you wish. Alternatively, you can keep your Key lime tree indoors year round. Dwarf Key Lime trees are available, which can make shifting the container around easier.

Suggestions for container planting include lining the bottom of the container with stones or pottery shards, and using soil that drains well. Experts warn that if the trunk is below the soil line, it may rot. Key lime trees prefer moist soil and misting. They prefer a southern exposure, and may need additional light if they can’t be placed in full sun. The best temperature for a key lime tree is 70ºF (21ºC) during the day and 54ºF (12.2ºC) at night.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for HomeQuestionsAnswered, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.

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Discussion Comments
By anon336902 — On Jun 01, 2013

About 12 years ago, I planted seeds from key limes I brought from Mexico. I grew about 12 trees. I gave most of them away, but kept one. After several years in a container, I planted it in the ground and about three years later, it started to produce fruit.

It grew to about 12 feet high and produced plenty of limes almost year round. I live in Tucson, Arizona, so that helps. This year, we had an unusual hard freeze in February and most of the tree didn't make it, even though I did my best to protect it. It seems to be growing again from the trunk but if it does, it will be a long time before it gets to where it once was.

By anon128736 — On Nov 20, 2010

I have a key lime tree that I planted four years ago. It has never had a flower on it, (nor obviously bore any fruit). How do I get this to bear fruit? I had one years ago and it was the most prolific little tree from the first year I planted it.

Also, my tree has curling leaves and it always had. Does anyone have a magic bullet for correcting this problem and getting my key lime to produce?

By LittleMan — On Nov 16, 2010

Does anybody know where I can buy Mexican key lime trees in the Sacramento area? I would really like to buy some locally-grown trees, since I'm big into local agriculture, but I will buy them over the internet if I have to.

So if anybody reading this is from the Sacramento area, and has any Mexican key lime trees for sale, leave me a message in the comments -- I would definitely be interested in buying!


By googlefanz — On Nov 16, 2010

How hardy would you say that most key lime trees are? I am considering starting a few in my fruit grove, but I am a little leery about going through the process of plating them and then just losing them a few years later.

So how vulnerable are key lime trees to diseases? Are there any diseases or disorders to which they are particularly prone?

I have grown dwarf lemon trees before, so I have a little bit of experience when it comes to growing citrus trees, but limes are new to me.

If you could give me a little more detailed information on growing lime trees, specifically on how the methods differ from growing lemon trees, I would be very appreciative.


By zenmaster — On Nov 16, 2010

Isn't it crazy how many different kinds of limes there are? I recently was given a dwarf orange tree, so I started looking into citrus trees, thinking that I might want to buy a key lime tree too. I was shocked to learn how many different kinds of lime trees there are!

I mean, I use lime leaf in my restaurant's dishes, but that's usually the cooks's responsibility to find and choose, so I never really knew that there were so many different varieties.

I'm glad that you covered so many of the kinds in your article too -- the information will be very helpful as I decide whether I want to buy a key lime tree or a Mexican lime tree.

Thanks so much for all the information -- great article.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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