Key Lime Harvesting Tips

Knowing when to harvest the key lime is both an art and science. The time from bud to harvest isfairly uniform, around 3 to 4 months. The difficulty lies in judging the ripeness of the individual fruits. Once picked, the fruit will not continue to ripen, as do many others. Limes will last longer if left on the tree. Pick only what is needed and can be quickly used unless a heavy frost threatens the crop.


Harvest low hanging fruit first. There is more danger of severe damage from frost to fruit closer to the ground. Also, “brown rot,” a soil-based fungus, will ruin fruit exposed by accidental splashing. This can even penetrate intact citrus skin, rotting the flesh. Fruit growing higher in the tree is much less likely to be infected. Eliminate both of these risks by harvesting the lowest fruits first.


Picking key limes is a thorny affair. True key lime trees are thorny, but the fruit is worth the extra effort harvesting requires. A decent pair of leather gloves can make the job easier. Simply grasp the fruit firmly in one hand. Twist and pull to remove the fruit from the branch. Great effort should not be needed, although fully ripened fruit will release more easily. Take some care in placing the harvested fruit into the container for carrying. Bruised or damaged fruit will not keep well, and damaged skins can lead to an unnecessary sticky mess. If the threat of a heavy frost has prompted rapid harvest, the extra fruit can be juiced. The juice once frozen in ice cube trays can be stored in plastic bags in the freezer for later use.


Color change is used as an indicator of ripening fruit quite often. In the case of limes, however, it is a less valuable tool. Fully mature limes turn yellow, resembling lemons. At this point, however, the lime is will likely be bitter and unappealing. Selecting a lime, particularly a key lime, means looking for a yellowish-green fruit. Choose a less-green more lightly colored fruit to pick. Deeper shades of green will indicate the fruit is less mature and less juicy.


Key limes should be firm but not hard. They should have a solid heavy “feel” to them. Wrinkled skin is a sure sign that the lime is old, and past its prime. The smooth skin of a key lime must be intact, or it will spoil quickly. If the skin is whole, and the fruit not damaged or bruised, limes will last in cool, moist storage for several weeks.


Light color, smooth skin, weight and the passage of time will can be good indicators of ripening fruit. Yet, the only sure way to judge the ripeness of key limes is to test the fruit by sampling it. Cut a lime and taste it. It should be juicy. If it is not, the fruit may need a few more days before harvesting. Key limes go through lengthy growth stages on the tree. There is no magic moment of ripeness. Rather there is a lengthy window of opportunity where this wonderful fruit can be enjoyed.