Wild Lime

zanthoxylum fagara

wild lime

Wild lime, photographed at Fern Forest Nature Center, Coconut Creek, Broward County, in May 2014.

In case you were wondering, wild lime is in fact related by family to the real thing, though you wouldn't guess by the fruit it produces.

Wild lime, Zanthoxylum fagara, is a member of the Rutaceae family, which includes citrus trees (and cork trees). The relationship is a bit distant, however. Real limes are members of genus Citrus, while our guy obviously isn't. But the leaves of wild lime when crushed do give off a lime-like scent. So there is that. A South Florida native commonly called Hercules club, Z. clava-herculis, is a close relation. More on the connection in a bit.

Wild lime is a small tree, growing to a maximum of about 26 feet in South Florida, where it is a native found in the understory of hammocks. It has compound leaves that are arranged alternately along the stem. Each leaflet is about an inch long, oval shaped with a slight notch at the end. The terminal leaflet is longer than the others.

The branches are well protected, with sharp thorns along their length. The flowers are yellow and, individually, not much to look at. In aggregate, however, they're kind of pretty. They produce a small black berry-like fruit. The flowers appear year-round, peaking in winter through summer. Wild lime is dioecious, meaning male and female flowers appear on separate plants.

It is native to Florida and its range includes most of the Peninsula from Volusia County into the Keys. In the northern end of its range, it's likely to be a little smaller than in the south.

The only other state in which wild lime is found is Texas, where wild lime grows in a few counties along the Gulf Coast and in south Texas along the Rio Grande. Its range also includes Mexico, Central America and parts of the Carribean.

It is used in landscaping as an understory plant or as a specimen planting. Because of its small size, it can be used in small spaces or even in a container. And while it is an understory plant in the wild, living in places with limited sunlight, it will adapt to full sun.

Wild lime serves as host plant for the giant swallowtail and Schaus' swallowtail butterflies. It provides cover for birds and other small animals; birds also will munch on the fruit. The fruit is edible for us humans, but has a numbing quality to it, same as its cousin, Hercules club, which is also known as the toothache tree, because of its ability to quiet painful choppers. The fruit, bark and leaves of wild lime have a sharp taste, and can be ground up and used as a spice. The Seminoles used wild-lime to make bows and arrows; its wood is prized for furniture making. In the Bahamas, wild lime is used to make a strengthening tea. Researchers have lab-tested wild-lime's various chemical components and found some antifungal and antimicrobial properties.

Wild lime is also known as prickly ash and lime prickly ash. It's also spelled wild-lime.

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U.S. Department of Agriculture Distribution Maps

Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.