Water Jasmine

A Tiny Fragrant Star

Winter is my time for basement gardening.  Where we live we have to put our tropical plants in the basement for the winter.  It’s a lot of labor to go through twice a year.  We take them in when we know that the night temperature will drop and stay below 45°F, usually around late September or early October.  Then take them back out in spring when the temperatures will stay above 45°F at night.  It was easy when they were small but it gets much harder once some of them grow taller than us.  But it’s always a pleasure to have them around.  They keep me going in winter and give us fresh herbs even when the ground is covered with snow outside.

Basement garden- with Kaffir lime in the foreground. The tropical plants reside here under plant lights during winter
Basement garden- with Kaffir lime in the foreground. The tropical plants reside here under plant lights during winter

Tropical plants that are taller than us in addition to Kaffir lime and the Ficus, are the Water Jasmines (Wrightia religiosa), of which we have two, one over six feet tall and the other is around 1.5 foot tall.  I grew both of them from seeds.  I did try air layering once but that plant survived only a couple of years.

Water Jasmine provide plenty of fragrant flowers for months during summer.
Water Jasmine provide plenty of fragrant flowers for months during summer.  Each flower blooms for a day but it flowers continuously.
The branches spread out in layers with flowers under each layer
The branches spread out in layers with flowers under each layer
Each little branches fill with tiny white flowers
Each little branch fills with tiny, fragrant white flowers
Clustered of flowers
A cluster of flowers
A closer look at the flower
A closer look at the flower
A cluster of white flowers that ready to bloom once the opening ones drop
A cluster of white flower buds ready to bloom once the open ones drop

They never flower when they are in the basement.  I guess it’s not quite warm enough and perhaps not enough light.  The taller one gets very finicky with temperature changes too.  It drops 95% of its leaves when we first take it outside or when we bring it back inside.  Leaves and flower buds come out again after a month in full sun.  The tiny white star-shaped flower has a light, soothing fragrance.  Each flower blooms for just one day but there clusters of replacements ready to bloom in its place.

When they are outside and in full bloom, various types of bees, honeybees included, come for the nectar during the day and the moths take over at night.  Its seed pod is also interesting, it looks like a wishbone.  Once it’s matured the pods split open and release seeds with a silky thread attached that the wind will catch and carry to a new place.  That is how I propagate it, by the seeds.  The plant grown from a seed takes a few years before it will flower.  Air-layer and cutting are recommended for faster flowering.

Its seedpods look like wishbone
Its seedpods look like a wishbone
Mature seedpods spliced open with seeds with silky thread
Mature seedpods opened up exposing seeds, each with a silky thread
Seeds I keep for propagation
Seeds I keep for propagation

Water Jasmine is easy to grow in a pot, as I do.  It needs a warm temperature and plenty of sunlight to bloom. It can be planted outside in USDA Zone 8 and up.  If planting outside it can be used as a hedge.  It can also be trained to create a Bonsai.

It seems to have no known pests when growing outside, however Spider mites are the main problem when growing indoors.  I use an insecticide soap to get rid of them and mist the plant with water weekly.  I’m looking forward to germinating some of these seeds in March and hope to have a few more to create Bonsai from.

Growing Kaffir Lime From Seeds

Much Easier Than You Think

Kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix) has many benefits, in both food and medicinal.  Using its leaves is much common in cooking.  Fruit is too sour to use but rind is also used in cooking.  I love the scent of its crushed leaf and have been using them in my cooking.  The oldest and biggest tree I have is around 20 years old.

The left one is around 20 years old.  If I had let it grow naturally, it probably would have grown higher than the roof by now.
The left one is around 20 years old. If I had let it grow naturally, it probably would have grown higher than the roof by now.

It’s a pretty tough tree.  Aside from being dragged up and down steps to the basement twice a year, it has been tipped sideways by strong wind many times.  But, it’s still growing and pushing out new leaves every year.  I have to prune it down every year so it can fit in the basement during winter.  The rest of the limes are at various ages.  I grow all Kaffir lime from seeds.

Kaffir limes at various ages.  This group are around two to three year's old.  They only spend time outside from spring to autumn when daytime temperatures are above 50 F
Kaffir limes at various ages. This group are around two to three year’s old. They only spend time outside from spring to autumn when daytime temperatures are above 50 F

Kaffir lime is a small tree, native of Asia.  Growing it from seed is not difficult even in a cold climate.  Just take seeds from a ripe fruit, select the healthy looking seeds and discard the flat ones.

  • Clean jell off the selected seeds and put them in seed starter medium.  Put one seed per container so seedlings can be replanted in a bigger pot without their roots disturbed later on.
  • Water, keep the container covered but leave a small gap for air to circulate then set it where it can get direct sun.
  • If you have a heat mat, set the temperature at 80° F.  Keeping the soil temperature constantly at 80° F will help the seeds germinate faster.  Fertile seeds will germinate within three weeks.  It may take a little bit longer without the heat mat.  With one batch I didn’t use the heat mat but put the tray out on a cement floor under direct sun during the day and took it in at night.  Some seeds may rot if the soil is too wet.

    Two month old Kaffir limes I germinated this year
    Two month old Kaffir limes I germinated this year

Clean, dry seeds can be kept in a dry airtight bag for a few years.  The seeds I germinated this year are three years old.

  • When you start Kaffir lime seedlings from dry seeds, soak the seeds for a couple of hours before putting them in the soil to soften the seed shell.  The wet seeds will feel a little bit slimy but that is common for lime seeds.
  • Once the seedlings develop a second set of true leaves, put them in a slightly bigger pot.  The potting soil should be loamy and kept moist at all times.  The key word is ‘moist’.  Kaffir lime hates wet, soggy soil.  Root rot can be a major problem.  So, if keeping the soil ‘moist’ is difficult, stay on the dry side… much safer that way.
  • If growing it in the house, keep it on the windowsill where it can get direct sunlight.  Plant lights will do if there is no access to direct sun, but the light need to be on at least 8 hours a day.
  • Kaffir lime can stay outside if the temperature is above 50° F both day and night.  It can deal with nighttime temperatures between 40-50°F if the pot is situated close to the house.
  • Change some of the potting soil every two years if possible.  Loosen the old soil off the roots around 1/3 from the bottom but not more than half then put the plant in a new pot with fresh soil mix with compost at the bottom.  Cover topsoil with some fresh soil and compost mix as well.  Water thoroughly.
  • Prune branches that crossed and rubbed one another.  Nip the tip off a plant  when it’s around six inches tall.  It will start to branch out.  Keep the pruned leaves in the freezer for future use in cooking.
  • Feed monthly and keep soil moist.  Stop feeding a month before taking the plant inside to over winter and start feeding again a month before bring it outside in spring or when new leaves start to bud.

    New leaves will start to bud in late winter, an indication to start feeding
    New leaves will start to bud in late winter, an indication to start feeding
  • Even keeping Kaffir lime in an apartment, stop feeding in late fall and during winter time.  Let it stay in semi-dormant stage until late winter.  The plant will tell you when to feed.  It will start sprouting new leaves, even in the house, when spring approaches.  This is an indication to start feeding.  Water it less in winter as well.

Spider mites are a known pest for houseplants, kaffir lime included.  An indication is the web and tiny specks on the leaves.  Leaves start to dry out and drop.  If this problem occurs, give it a good shower both top and bottom of the leaves.   Aphids like fresh new leaves, just spray them off with water.  A spray bottle works very well for this.

The easy part, growing, is done.  The difficult part is to refrain from eating it until it’s big enough to tolerate the leaves being picked off.

Kaffir Lime

Kaffir Lime:  A Tree Worth Traveling With. 

Asian cooking uses a lot of Kaffir Lime leaves.   It gives a tangy lemony scent and taste.   Though finding lime leaves in the US is getting easier, you still have to go to an Asian market and for the most part they’re not fresh enough or they’re frozen.  I grow my own Kaffir Lime, in pots of course.  As a tropical plant they won’t last the winter outside in my area.  The largest one has been with me for at least 18 years, spends most of its life inside.  I take it with me, along with the jasmines wherever I move.  I have to cut it down every year, in spring and late fall; otherwise it won’t fit in the basement (winter training camp).  At my parent’s house (tropics), they grow in the ground and one of them grew almost as high as the house itself and bore plenty of fruit.   Last I heard, it had died of old age, and may it rest in peace.

18 years old & fresh out of winter camp.

Two of my largest I trim to keep just a little taller than me, no higher.   The three-year-old generation, five of them, is just over a foot and a half tall.  I think I’m going to limit their growth to two feet since dragging the largest one in and out of the basement twice a year proves not an easy task.  I love the perfume from their leaves so brushing against them during moving makes the job sort of pleasant until the 1 to 1.5 inch thorns find your skin.  Yes, their thorns are very intimidating.

I started sixteen seedlings last March.  Don’t ask me why.  I just like them and I think it’s a challenge to grow a small tree from seed, let alone a tropical tree.  They are pretty good looking 1.5 inch tall babies currently and are enjoying their first summer outside.  Two of my colleagues have already put their names on one kid each.  Once they have a couple more sets of leaves they will be ready for adoption. I will have to figure out how I’m going to deal with the rest them in winter when they are bigger; our basement is still the same size.

Cooking with fresh Kaffir Lime leaf is a pleasure.  I usually use the fresh leaves in soup, curry and salad.  The really young buds that still have a hint of burgundy in them, you can just pick them off and dip in a tasty sauce.  The fruit can be used in sour curry, but you need to take its skin off first. Just be very careful since it has a much stronger, sharper taste than other limes.  The common use of fruit is the skin; it’s part of the ingredient in most curry if you plan to make curry paste yourself.

You can also grill the fruit, skin and all, then use the juice to wash your hair.  It’s supposed to clean all the residue off your hair very well and give a shine and smoothness to it.  I did try it when I was young just to see if it really works.  It did but I felt a tingling on my scalp since it had a little scratch in it; imagine squeezing a lemon on a scratch.  I also had a tough time rinsing the pulp out of my hair since no one told me I was suppose to strain it first.  My hair smelled really nice though.  You can find shampoo infused with Kaffir lime in the market now but I don’t know if it works as well as the real thing.

Seedlings a few months old enjoy sunlight.

Anyway,  growing one Kaffir Lime is one of the best things you can give yourself if you love cooking  Southeast Asian food or just cooking in general.  New recipes always start with an experiment.  One of my colleagues finely chopped  a little bit of leaf and put it in scrambled eggs.  She told me it was good.  I haven’t tried it myself, so can’t really vouch.  My new trick is tearing it to small pieces and putting it in ice tea just to give the tea that fresh, uplifting scent.

Kaffir lime doesn’t need much attention.  Light and water, not too much though, and it will keep growing.  I feed them twice a year since they are in pots and change the potting soil every couple of years.  One thing to watch for if you keep them in the house is spider mites.   They love to hang out on the young leaves, but are easy to get rid of.  If the plant is small, just put it in the bathtub and spray with water on both the top and bottom of the leaves.  If the plant is too big to give it a bath, take the bucket to the plant.  If you take good care of it, it will keep you company for years and may outlast you.  One of mine has been with me for at least 18 years, longer than many relationships I’ve known.  I haven’t come to the point of having a conversation with it yet but Bill chats up the plants whenever he’s among them.  ..Don’t ask.