Eulogy for my kaffir lime tree

In recent months our backyard garden has been attacked by a rat and denuded of much of its vegetation. She or he selected several trees to ringbark, and the trees subsequently died as expected. There were three citrus trees in large pots. The Tahitian lime tree was left alone but the lemon and kaffir trees are dead.

I was particularly sad to see the kaffir lime tree lose its life. I remember going all the way out to Cabramatta to purchase it at the huge Asian market there. It was around 1994. I was doing a Thai cooking course at the Sydney Community College and kaffir lime leaves were a staple.

My dead kaffir lime tree

The tree survived numerous challenges over more than 20 years. At the beginning of 1997, I cleared my house for renting when I left Sydney to live and work in Rome for two years. The tree went to Albury in the removal van with my furniture and whitegoods to a house that was being rented to accommodate a succession medical locums from out of town. It returned to Sydney to my original house in 1999, and then in 2001 it moved with me 12 doors down the street when I bought my current residence.

I admit with a certain amount of shame that I have neglected its welfare. It's not my fault that the daily appearance of the sun in my backyard is fleeting, but I've always refused to buy plant food or fertilisers of any kind, even though it was obvious that the kaffir lime tree and my other plants were being constantly attacked by bugs.

The citrus trees were supposed to save me money, not cost me. I didn't understand that they needed love, and that it could involve some financial investment, which would then encourage them to respond in kind.

Despite my lack of care, the tree did bear fruit for two years around the middle of its life. I was surprised to see the fruit and did not realise the limes were edible or useful for cooking, so they went in the bin. In fact they are prized. The tree seemed to respond to my ingratitude by never again bearing fruit.

Yesterday I told the story of the tree to my South African immigrant friend. She kindly offered to give me a cutting of hers and told me of her particular burden of shame in owning a kaffir lime tree, which was rather different to my own shame.

She said: 'We didn’t get kaffir lime trees in South Africa and I was appalled when I encountered them here. That word - kaffir - was used as a slur against black South Africans. I’d never said it in my life before I bought one such tree; I use a different pronunciation - kaf-eer – so as not to be loaded with guilt.'

It seems my friend has found an effective way to deal with her shame. For mine, I'm hoping that I will discover how to nurture the plant and love it into a long and productive life.