The etrog citron (Citrus medica) is a fruit with thousands of years of human use, much like the related Buddha’s hand fruit. Both are famous for their pleasing, room-filling aroma, but only the etrog is an integral ingredient in Sukkot celebrations that follow
Some believe the Garden of Eden fruit is etrog, not an apple. Its association with eternal life may come from its own longevity: The fruit of some varieties lasts three years on the branch without dropping. Originally from India, etrog is one of the oldest cultivated citrus plants. Archaeologists have uncovered seeds in Mesopotamia dating back to 8000 BC. The ancient Egyptians used etrog in embalming mummies; the more prosaic Romans found it an effective moth repellent.
Depending on the variety, etrog can be bumpy or ridged. Some are shaped like an hourglass. The fruit should have no visible blemishes on the skin -- no black spots or scratches under a magnifying glass. If the pitam (the tip where the stamen was attached) is still intact, all the better.
To be kosher, etrog must come from a tree grown from seed, not propagated through grafting or budding. Unblemished etrog with this lineage can sell for $60 to $100, and trade is brisk as the holidays approach.
In California, finding an etrog to plant is almost impossible, though that may soon change. Unforbidden Fruits, a UC Riverside project to grow plants free of the pathogens that can taint foreign-grown crops and endanger the state's agricultural industry, is nearing its three-year mark. Its first generation of Californian-grown seedlings will become available to nurseries.
Dr. Clive Segil, an orthopedic surgeon who lives in Encino, has a 4-year-old etrog plant, one of about 300 exotic fruit trees he has planted. He got an 18-inch seedling from a doctor in Santa Monica who had about a dozen plants in his yard. Segil hasn’t harvested anything yet, but typically the four-year mark is when grafted trees start bearing. Etrog plants started from seed can take nearly twice as long to bear fruit.
"If I could get an etrog from my tree, I would be overjoyed to use it for the ceremony," he says. "And if I got more than one, I'll donate them to my synagogue."