by Alissa Danckaert Skovira

When the last leaf falls, a familiar dread sets in.

It starts in November, a month full of grim memories for me — memories of gazing out at the barren, dark world from my mom’s hospital window in the cancer ward. I guess the ugliness of the disease became fused with the season. As the days grow darker, I crave light and greenery. Months must pass before the first green shoots of spring thrust out of the ground. A favorite line of mine from Poe’s grieving poem “The Raven” reads, “Ah, distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December.” Bleak is exactly how I feel when winter approaches.

A Meyer lemon from an indoor tree. (Photo: Alissa Danckaert Skovira)

Not that I don’t appreciate the beauty of snow, and the Christmas season brings it own light. But after Christmas decorations return to storage, those stark, skeleton trees and cloudy skies weigh heavily upon me.

And I’m not alone: For many people, the dread of winter is a tangible thing. Fewer hours of daylight, the cold temperatures, and bare vegetation can exact a heavy toll upon our moods.

When I noticed one of my kids complaining about the weather constantly, I had an epiphany. That was how I sounded! Whiny. I’m sure my dark mood followed me around like my own personal cloud. I had to do something.

For me, I knew my options were limited. Thoughts of moving to a warmer climate seemed so tempting, but my roots — my identity — are Midwestern. This is home.

Having greenery around can help. In a 2016 Harvard study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, Dr. James Peter was surprised to discover the extent to which exposure to “high levels of vegetation seem to be connected with improved mental health.” I tried visiting a garden center. I felt a little better. But I wanted to move into that greenhouse. The sight and smells of the vegetation restored me.

It was there that I spied a lemon tree with sunny yellow fruit, and I knew then that I wanted one. Actually, I needed one. I picked out a plant in flower, and I took it home ready to create my own oasis.

Growing lemons is an exercise in sensory delight. Shiny green foliage is a welcome sight in the dead of winter. Before fruiting, the tree will sport exquisite white flowers that actually smell lemony. And then the small green balls start to form. The four- to 12-month wait for the fruit to ripen feels like an eternity, but when it does, it’s an amazing sight.

Historically, the lemon has been cultivated for over 4,000 years, though its precise origin is up for debate. Some researchers suggest it’s from Kashmir, north of India. The first lemon seeds arrived in the new world courtesy of Christopher Columbus. Those early lemon trees are distant cousins to our house lemon.

Waiting for lemons to turn that glorious yellow hue is surely a lesson in patience. And yet, it’s rewarding. Holding the ripened fruit in your palm, it’s easy to feel the density. The yellow seems more intense, the fragrance is tempting, and when cut, the lemon offers an abundance of lemon juice perfect for making lemonade, adding to tea or flavoring a multitude of dishes.

A Meyer lemon from an indoor tree. (Photo: Alissa Danckaert Skovira)

To grow a lemon tree successfully indoors, choosing a dwarf variety works best. Citrus myeri, a Chinese variety which is a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange, offers the most promise, producing radiant three-inch lemons under the proper conditions. Most gardeners know this tree as Meyer’s Lemon or the Meyer lemon. Meyer lemons offer an intense flavor and a lot of sweetness, so if you need more of a tart flavoring for a recipe, you might want to avoid this one. The pith, the bitter white coating, is extremely thin, making it easy to slice and add to drinks and dishes without much work.

The Meyer lemon tree can withstand some cold, though it’s best grown in a pot inside when temperatures drop into the 30s. If moved outdoors during warmer weather, keep an eye out for pests such as white fly.

My lemon tree is happiest in my sunroom for three of our four seasons. The more light the better, with a minimum of eight hours for maximum growing and fruiting. Given our propensity towards gloom in the winter months, supplementing the sunlight with an inexpensive grow light is a good idea.

And because our indoor air gets dry, adding a little moisture to it makes the lemon tree happy. (People benefit from this as well.) A humidifier or a pebble tray with a bit of water in it beneath the pot works wonders.

And the wonders do happen. Lemon trees can grow as tall as 10 feet, but their growth is slow, and they begin bearing fruit while still fairly small. The rewards of watching the glossy, green leaves, the fragile-looking white flowers and the developing lemons can’t be denied.

Cultivating your own green space indoors can help with those winter blahs. And studies indicate gardening is good for much more.  According to the BBC, a researcher studying longevity patterns in cultures, Dan Beuttner, found an interesting and “unexpected commonality” among societies where people live the longest. They garden. They garden “well into old age—their 80s, 90s, and beyond.”

There’s something magical about the enduring beauty of plants. My lemon tree reminds me that beneath the snow, my garden is only sleeping. Other plants have joined my oasis, but the lemon tree is still my favorite.

Alissa Danckaert-Skovira teaches writing at Kent State University. She has a background in English and history, and she enjoys anything and everything to do with research and writing. Her interests include historic preservation, politics, gardening, and all things Akron.

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