Despite the name, the Spanish lime is not part of the citrus family but the family Sapindaceae, which also includes the soapberry. It grows natively or has been introduced in many tropical areas of the world, such as the Caribbean and South and Central America.
It is a vigorous tree that can grow up to a height of 25 m. Spanish lime leaves grow in alternate fashion and are compound, made up of 4 leaflets with an elliptic shape. Each one of these has a length between 5 and 12.5 cm, with a width of 2.5 to 5 cm. Normally, the Spanish lime tree is dioecious but polygamous trees can sometimes be encountered. Flowers consist of 4 petals and 8 stamens each. The fruits are green drupes with a length of up to 4 cm and a width of 2 cm. The pulp is juicy and can be yellow, orange or salmon in color.
The Spanish lime is sweet, sour or a combination of both. The sweet fruits are normally consumed raw. However, the sour varieties are usually eaten with a combination of condiments. In Southern areas of Mexico, these include regular limes, chili powder or salt.
The Spanish lime tree is commercially important for its bunches of green fruits with an ovoid shape. The skin of the fruit is thin but very strong and usually has to be cracked open using the teeth. It is sometimes described as being similar to limes or lychees. The fruit is also known as a mamoncillo, which comes from the word mamar that means "to suck", because of the traditional way of eating it. The whole fruit is inserted in the mouth, which allows sucking the creamy pulp that surrounds the large seeds. While the flesh is usually orange or yellow, the juice is dark brown in color. For this reason, the native Arawak used it as a dye for their cloth.
The Spanish lime fruit is small and round-shaped, resembling an olive. It has a very hard skin, protecting a very sweet and fragrant flesh with a creamy texture. It can be consumed raw and also prepared as a sauce, dessert dish or turned into juice.
The Spanish lime is a great source of vitamins and minerals, like many other tropical fruits. It is especially rich in vitamins A and C, which are essential for the normal operation of the human immune system. Both these vitamins are powerful antioxidants that can neutralize free radicals and protect tissues and cells from their destructive action. However, vitamin C is also able to increase the production of white blood cells, which guard the body against pathogens. Two other essential bioactive compounds are found in the Spanish lime. Lysine is required for normal growth and also prevents the herpes virus, while the generous amount of tryptophan regulates sleep.
The Spanish lime is also an excellent choice for a healthy diet due to the high content of iron. Since iron is the main building block of red blood cells, it is considered one of the most important minerals required by the human body. A lack of iron means there aren't enough red blood cells to transport oxygen through the veins, which has a negative impact on all body functions. This leads to anemia, with symptoms like fatigue, excessive weakness, digestive problems and dizziness.
The fruit is a great source of phenolic compounds with an antioxidant action, which improve the reaction of the immune system but also prevent strokes and other vascular incidents. It also balances blood pressure and can treat asthma.
Since it is known that Spanish limes have a content of proteins that reduce the amount of sugar in the blood, they are considered a potential super food for people with diabetes. The leaves can be prepared into a tea after boiling, which is used as a treatment for a wide range of digestive issues.
The Spanish lime fruit is also known for its effects on anxiety and mood swings and is considered a natural cure for such problems in tropical areas. It appears that neurotransmitter levels can be balanced by the powerful combination of vitamins and minerals found in Spanish limes. Along with the antioxidants and organic compounds, these can relieve anxiety and fix unstable mood. It is used for this purpose in tropical areas, in order to calm women during menstruation.
Besides the flesh, the sizeable seed of the Spanish lime fruit can also be eaten. They are delicious when cooked and also provide important health benefits. The seeds are roasted then crushed, the resulting powder being used in South America as a replacement for cassava flour. The flour can also cure diarrhea, when combined with honey. The tasty juice is widespread in Colombia, where it can be found in almost any shop. An unusual use of the plant is to place leaves inside the house, as a flea repellant.
The fruits are comparable in shape and size to olives but they have a very rigid and strong skin. However, the inside pulp resembles a lychee, with the same creamy pulp full of sweet juice. It is typically consumed fresh after piercing the skin, or prepared as a jam or juice. Most often, the fruit is boiled and transformed into cold juice, in order to compensate for the low amount of pulp. Other preparation options are sauces or dessert dishes. When eaten raw, it is often mixed with various condiments.
As a tropical plant, the Spanish lime requires hot climates and doesn't tolerate cold. The leaves are very sensitive and are completely destroyed at −4 °C or less, but any amount of freezing causes serious damage.
The Spanish lime tree propagates readily from the seeds. However, grafting or layering are sometimes used to multiply valuable plants for cultivation. It grows at a slow rate and needs between 5 and 10 years to start producing fruits. For best results, it should be planted in dry and hot areas, close to sea level. It enjoys fertile soils with a high pH but can tolerate other types as well. It is also valuable as an ornamental tree and can be found alongside roads for this purpose. The Spanish lime fruits are harvested between the months of July and October.