Known for its fragrant blossoms and juicy, sour fruit, citrus limon is a tree immortalized in song and poetry as a metaphor for love. From Arabic and Spanish love poems to an English folk song popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary, the lemon tree has caught the romantic imaginations of all who came into contact with it. The fruit can be found in every kitchen in one form or another. Not only do many of us keep fresh lemons or squeezed lemon juice around, the food industry makes ample use of them. Lemon juice is found in many commercial foods and other products.

Its use as a flavoring, and its medicinal value, have resulted in the lemon being transplanted around the world. Likely originating in India, citrus limon was introduced to the Middle East possibly as early as Biblical times (it is unclear whether a particular fruit mentioned in the Old Testament is the lemon or the related but juice free citron). Crusaders introduced citrus limon to Europe. Many sources hold that the first lemon tree in the New World was planted by Columbus himself. Whether this is true or not, the lemon has been quickly introduced everywhere people who knew it migrated.

Wherever the lemon has been introduced, it rapidly replaced the previous sources for sour flavorings in the local cuisine. Before the lemon, Romans used vinegar and sumac berries for this purpose. In eastern North America, the cranberry was once the main source of sour flavoring. Many sour food plants have been forgotten altogether as they made way for the lemon. Citrus limon, then, is a conqueror’s plant. Just as many indigenous languages have given way to English, Spanish, and French, many of the world’s sour seasonings have been subjugated under the lemon.

Every national cuisine in the world makes use of the lemon. It flavors meats, sweets, vegetable dishes, and drinks. More sauces and dips include lemon juice than not. Though the lemon is way too sour to eat on its own, it plays such a strong supporting role that we cannot prepare many recipes without using lemons.

A strong source of vitamin C, lemon, and the closely related lime, were some of the first foods used to fight scurvy after the disease had been identified as caused by a lack of vitamin C. In Mexico (as I learned when I was an exchange student there), a good dose of lemon juice is the most recommended home remedy for a cold. In keeping with the lemon tree’s association with romance, lemon juice has a long history of use as a contraceptive. Modern research upholds it as an effective spermicide, and also suggests that it might fight HIV.

The allure of citrus limon is a strong one. So popular is it that every people familiar with the lemon has transplanted it whenever they migrated to lemon-free (but lemon hospitable) countries. A silent conqueror, the lemon has replaced previous sources of sour flavoring everywhere it has been introduced.