Buddha’s hand: growing, care & uses

Frederike
Frederike
Frederike
Frederike

I am a student of agricultural sciences and a real country kid. At home, I love tending my small vegetable garden and spending time out in nature. When not outdoors, I love to write. Beyond gardening and writing, however, I am particularly passionate about wildlife.

Favourite fruit: currants and raspberries
Favourite vegetables: salsify, savoy cabbage and potatoes

The Buddha’s hand lemon looks pretty unique with its unusual finger-shaped fruits. Here you will find out how to plant, care for and overwinter Buddha’s hand plants.

Ripe, harvested Buddha's hand fruits growing on a branch
Yellow organic Buddha’s hand citrus fruit with finger-like features from Scicily [Photo: 1234zoom/ Shutterstock.com]

The Buddha’s hand lemon (Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis) is one of the oldest citrus varieties belonging to the large citron family. The plant owes its name to its bizarre, finger-like fruits, which can grow to be many different shapes and sizes. Sometimes the Buddha’s “fingers” are outstretched, whilst others grow into more of a fist-shape. In this article you will learn all there is to know about this curious lemon variety from the Far East.

Buddha’s hand: origin and history

The Buddha’s hand citron is thought to have originated in north-eastern China or India, where the fruit is often used in religious ceremonies and offerings. However, the citron, which is sensitive to frost and cold, also thrives well in southern and central Italy and along the southern Californian coast. The Buddha’s hand lemon can also be cultivated in large pots in our British climate, provided the plant is overwintered in a bright location. The fruits that ripen in winter can be left on the lemon tree for months and do not have to be harvested immediately.

The various types of Buddha’s hand fruits

Different varieties of this lemon are most commonly found in Asia. A distinction is made between fruits that resemble an open hand and varieties holding a fist. The ‘Digitata’ or ‘Fingered’ varieties are most commonly sold in shops in the UK. According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha himself preferred a closed fruit, as it more closely resembled a hand closed in prayer.

Closed Buddha’s hand citron growing on tree
The closed fruits in particular are often used as offerings in Buddhism [Photo: Heiti Paves/ Shutterstock.com]

How to grow Buddha’s hand

Although the fingered citron is quite an exotic fruit, it is still possible to grow it here in the UK. If you are considering buying a Buddha’s hand tree, it is best to opt for a well-established potted plant rather than starting from seed as it takes about eight years for the Buddha’s hand plant to bear its first fruits.

Buddha’s hand care

As with all citrus plants, it is very important to put your Buddha’s hand in the right location. From May to October, you can keep the Buddha’s hand outside if you have a sunny and wind-sheltered spot and the weather is nice and warm. However, make sure it is not too warm as the plant’s root ball can quickly overheat. To avoid overheating in hot summer weather, provide additional shade and use plant pots that do not overheat as quickly (such as terracotta pots instead of black plastic pots).

Make sure the plant’s soil is as permeable and well-structured as possible. Citrus soils are perfect for this, as they are slightly acidic with a specially adapted nutrient balance that will best meet the needs of your Buddha’s hand tree. Additionally, mix in some clay pebbles, lava rock or gravel to improve drainage and minimise the risk of waterlogging. As it is a slow-growing plant, the Buddha’s hand only needs to be repotted every three to five years. Only when the soil is fully rooted is it time for a new pot – ideally repot your Buddha’s hand before the new shoots appear at the end of March.

Buddha’s hand tree growing in sun
Buddha’s hand likes a bright, sunny location [Photo: Olesia Grachova/ Shutterstock.com]

How to water the plant

If you want to keep your Buddha’s hand plant happy and healthy, it is important to water it right. In summer, water the plant generously every day, so that the soil is soaked through. Ideally, never let the soil dry out completely – after a prolonged lack of water, the Buddha’s hand will shed its flowers and leaves. For a long time, it was believed that the Buddha’s lemon should only be watered with low-lime rainwater. However, experts now agree that the calcium found in tap water has a positive effect on the plant’s growth. To maintain the right balance between a supply of calcium and an acidic pH value of the soil, alternate watering with tap water and rainwater.

Fertilising your Buddha’s hand

Like almost all citrus plants, the Buddha’s hand requires lots of extra nutrients. Roughly once a fortnight, apply a specially adapted citrus fertiliser, such as our Plantura Liquid Citrus Food. This provides the necessary balance of potassium for Buddha’s hand plants. Fertilise your plant during the growing season, which is from around March to October. When keeping your Buddha’s hand in a heated conservatory, the growing season can last until December. There is no need to fertilise Buddha’s hand during the winter.

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Overwintering

One of the trickiest aspects of Buddha’s hand care is overwintering. As a Mediterranean plant, the Buddha’s hand is not very hardy, so it is important to keep it in temperatures between 8 and 15°C during the winter. The ideal conditions would be a constant temperature of about 10°C. Sunlight is almost as important as finding the right temperature. Your Bhudda’s hand tree’s winter home should be as bright as possible. Sunny conservatories or slightly heated greenhouses are perfect, but a large south-facing window can also provide enough sunlight. As a rule of thumb: the warmer the location, the brighter it needs to be. If there is a lack of light, the plant reacts quickly by dropping its leaves, so avoid this if possible.

As the growth of Buddha’s hand is halted during the winter, it is not necessary to fertilise the plant during this time. However, it is important to keep watering: Even during the winter period, do not let the soil dry out. To determine the correct watering intervals during winter dormancy, you can place a moisture meter in the pot. This allows you to measure the moisture level inside the root ball and to keep it at the right level.

Pruning Buddha’s hand plants

Like every citrus plant, the Buddha’s fruit plant also needs regular pruning. To do this, follow these steps:

  • Use sharp, clean pruning shears. Cut back all dead and diseased branches to expose the healthy wood. Then slightly thin the crown by removing any shoots that are growing inwards and resting against each other.
  • Always trim just above a bud or branch fork.
  • Ideally, prune the Buddha’s hand plant at the end of March before new shoots appear.
Buddha’s hand tree indoors
Buddha’s hand should hibernate in bright, warm conditions [Photo: bonilook/ Shutterstock.com]

Summary: How to look after your Buddha’s hand plant

  • Soil: Structurally stable, high mineral content and high permeability
  • Place outside from May to October
  • Conditions: Warm, sunny and protected from wind
  • Prevent root ball from overheating
  • Repot in March, when the pot is fully rooted
  • Keep soil moist in summer by watering daily with tap water and rainwater
  • During the winter, leave in a bright spot with temperatures well above 0°C and keep the root ball moist
  • Prune if necessary at the end of March

Harvesting the Buddha’s hand fruit

Depending on its growing conditions and care, the Buddha’s hand lemon plant can bear fingered citron fruit all year round. However, most Buddha’s hand fruits ripen from late summer onwards, and can usually be harvested shortly before overwintering. It is not always easy to determine when the Buddha’s lemons are ripe. But when the fruit visibly no longer grows or turns slightly brown, it is time to harvest.

Buddha’s hand lemon uses and preservation

The slightly purple flower buds and outer petals give off an intense citrus scent. The fruits themselves have a very pleasant lemon scent too and are often used in Asia as a scent diffuser for rooms and wardrobes, much like dried lavender in Europe. In addition to being used as a fragrance and in the kitchen, the closed-hand fruits in particular are used in Buddhism as an altar offering. Especially in China, Buddha’s hand is a popular New Year’s gift, as the fruits symbolise luck, happiness and health.

Chefs around the world have discovered uses for the fresh and intensely fragrant fruits. Since the fruits usually contain no pulp and no juice, it is mainly the lemon peel that is used in cooking. The zest can be used to flavour a wide variety of dishes and desserts because, unlike other citrus fruits, it is not bitter. Larger cuts of lemon peel are often added to cocktails as a fresh and aromatic garnish. Processed into candied lemon peel, the peel of Buddha’s hand can also be used for baking gingerbread. It is also delicious in jams or lemon liqueurs. And why not try making lemon salt from Buddha’s hand or try adding an exotic twist to your salad dressing?

3 harvested Buddha's hand fruits in a basket
The Buddha’s hand has become very popular among top chefs [Photo: Peera_stockfoto/ Shutterstock.com]

If you cannot use the fruit straight away, don’t worry: You can also freeze the Buddha’s fruit. In fact, this is a really easy way to preserve the fruit and retain much of its natural flavour. It is best to cut Buddha’s hand into slices for freezing – this not only helps the fruit to freeze through more quickly, but also makes it easier to portion out later. The flavour is retained particularly well if the lemon slices are sealed in an air-tight bag before freezing, but the fruit can also be frozen and stored in other suitable containers.

Tip: To stop the slices from freezing together, first lay out the lemon slices on a baking tray and put the whole thing in the freezer for a few hours then when frozen, transfer them from the baking tray into another container.

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