Grow Citrus Plants from Seed
Can you save seeds from citrus fruit and grow them into plants? Yes. And it really is easy.
Whether the fruit came from a grocery store or farmer’s market, if it has seeds, you can grow them.
Orange, lemons including Meyer lemon, tangerine, clementine, mandarin, lime, kumquat, and grapefruit with seeds are all candidates.
The steps (below) show you how to prepare the seeds, germinate them, and plant them pots.
While citrus is a tropical plant, it can be grown in colder climates as a potted houseplant, spending summers outdoors and winters indoors.
Will they grow fruit?
Yes, it is possible. But only if the plant has just what it needs.
Citrus plants are slow-growing, so it will take several years with good growing conditions to flower and then fruit. Some may never flower.
Most of the citrus fruits we enjoy are hybrids. Grapefruit is a good example. It was an accidental hybrid created from sweet orange (C. sinensis) and pomelo (C. maxima) cross-pollinating.
And that means, while any viable citrus seeds you sow can become beautiful, productive plants, hybrid plants—if they produce fruit—the fruit will not be the same in taste or appearance as the one it came from. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just different.
Satsuma tangerines are one of the few citrus plants that bears fruit similar to the parent when grown from seed.
To me, growing a plant from seed all the way to the fruiting stage is a big, fun accomplishment regardless of the taste.
How do commercial growers do it? How do they get the same fruit over and over again?
They use grafted plants. Cuttings are taken from the desired plant (scion) and attached to a rootstock from another citrus variety. This is cloning and it’s essentially the same plant making more fruit.
If you want to be sure your citrus tree grows fruit true to the parent, start with a grafted tree, or use species seeds (not hybrids).
TIP: Winter is a good time to germinate citrus seeds so you have the warmth and light of spring and summer to get the plants established.
Can’t I just toss seeds in some soil and get a plant that way?
Yes, absolutely! But, if you want a 100% success rate—and know ahead of time that the seeds will germinate and do so quickly—instead of waiting many weeks to discover it’s not going to work—do the extra steps listed (below).
How big will a potted citrus tree grow?
It’s up to you. Citrus trees in-ground get quite large but, by growing in containers, growth is somewhat inhibited.
As your plant grows, you can repot it into the next size container until it’s as large as you want it.
Often the weight of the container determines the stopping point because it gets too heavy to lug around.
Once the plant is as large as you want (years from now), you can root prune it to keep it healthy. This is just how it sounds: you remove the plant from the container, trim back the roots, replenish the potting mix, and repot it.
How to Sprout Citrus Seeds
- Citrus fruit (choose varieties that have seeds)
- Plant tags and binder clips
- Sieve (for rinsing seeds – optional)
- Paper towel
- Nail clippers
- Food storage container or food bags
- Small cups or plant pots with drainage holes
- Potting mix (see options, below)
- Fertilizer for citrus plants
1 Get Citrus Fruit
Depending on the time of year and your location, you may have quite a variety of fruit to choose from at the store.
When I first tested this out, I bought one of everything because I had never really paid attention to the seeds before.
Be sure to get the ID stickers that come with the fruit in many stores (they have the SKU barcode on them). You want to know exactly what the name of the fruit is, where it’s from, and have this info to further research it (if desired).
Some citrus fruit has nice, plump seeds—that we may not like for eating but work great for germinating.
Others have odd, flat seed-like shells, seemingly devoid of any real growing power. Those are not likely to germinate.
Either way, the next steps will get this sorted out.
2 Make Plant Tags
It’s always helpful to know what you’re growing and keep that info with the seed/ plant for future reference.
I had some old nametag cardstock (Avery nametags 5390) for my printer so I made labels. You can email me to request a copy of my Word template if you want to use mine.
If possible, make the tags water-resistant (so the ink doesn’t run) and get some binder clips to attach them to your seed / plant containers.
I put the SKU stickers on the tags for future reference.
3 Gather Seeds
Cut the fruit in half, top to bottom (if top navel is visible). This avoids damaging too many seeds with the knife, as many seeds tend to form around the middle horizontally.
Gently remove all seeds and set fruit aside.
Discard any seeds that look strange—small, flat, empty shells, etc.
Some fruit has a lot of seeds, others may have few. The grapefruit (photo, above) had just one seed total but it was a good one and grew into a tree.
4 Test for Seed Viability
Place seeds in a small cup of water.
If they sink to the bottom, they should be viable.
If they float, they are not (discard them).
If seeds have jelly-like coating, rinse in a strainer and gently push it off with soft towel.
5 Remove Seed Coat
This step can significantly speed up the germination time.
Seeds naturally come with outer protection that prevents unwanted germination. It’s super smart.
For citrus, the seeds have both a hard seed coat (made of two half shells sealed together), protecting the tender seed inside, and there may also be gel around the seed, to provide an additional barrier.
That’s why the seeds don’t sprout in the fruit—the moisture can’t reach them—it’s very cool!
To make germination go faster, we can remove both that gel coat (Step 3) and the hard shell.
Look for the hard, flat pointed end of the seed shell and snip it off with nail clippers, careful not to damage the actual seed inside.
Gently slide your fingernail between the two shell pieces to pry them open/apart and remove them (break them apart).
There are also skin-like layers inside which I leave alone (the seed will grow fine with the skin there). Don’t worry if some skin falls off.
Now you’ve got the soft seed. Be gentle with it!
6 Germinate the Seeds
Moisten a few sheets of paper towel and place the seeds on it, at least an inch apart in all directions to leave room for root growth.
Cover with another layer of moist paper towel and place in a food storage tub with lid or food storage bag.
You want the seeds in contact with warm moisture ongoing. Not too damp. And don’t let them dry out.
Attach your plant tag with a binder clip and place everything in a warm, dark location. I put them in a kitchen cupboard.
I put reminders in my phone to check on them every 2-3 days. Occasionally I forget and weeks later find this crazy-good thing growing in my cupboard!
7 Check on the Seeds
Check the seeds every few days.
If needed, spritz the towel to keep it moist. You want it moist, not dry or soaking wet.
Some will sprout really fast! Others may take weeks. Some will be duds.
Wrap it back up and put it back in the cupboard. We want roots at least an inch long before planting.
8 Plant Seedlings
When there is at least an inch of roots, you can sow the seedlings in potting mix.
The roots often look thick and off-white, like bean sprouts.
In some cases, the plant stem may also start growing.
Plant the sprouted seed in a small cup, pot, or other container with drainage holes.
A regular organic potting mix is good for clay and other non-plastic pots. You could also use a cacti potting mix with plastic pots because they retain more moisture.
I prefer to use separate little pots but sometimes I have limited room for lighting so I will put them all in one container for the first few months.
Position the roots just below the soil surface. Any other growth can be above soil level. Gently press the potting mix around the plant so it’s snugly in place.
Water thoroughly, top up potting mix if needed, and gradually transition plant to a warm, sunny location over a few weeks.
9 Grow a Citrus Tree
How long will it take to grow my citrus plant?
Citrus trees are slow-growers and heavy feeders, doing best with 8-12 hours of sunlight per day.
The less light, the slower the growth.
I started several different hybrids from seed and after 5 months (from the day I removed the seed from the fruit) they range in size from 4 to 7 inches tall.
Keep in mind that reduced light and warmth in winter (indoors) will slow or stall growth.
It may be 3-5 years before flowers form, then pollination can occur (you can help it), and fruit forms.
Small fruit may ripen over several months, larger fruit can take much longer.
You can help the plant grow faster by using supplemental grow lights.
Use fertilizer specifically for citrus plants and follow the application instructions on the label.
Basic Citrus Tree Care Tips – Container Growing
1. Provide 8-12 hours of sunlight each day. Avoid direct, burning sun.
2. Ensure pot has good drainage.
3. Use a slow-release fertilizer for citrus plants as directed.
4. Keep outdoors until temperatures reach 40°F (4°C), then bring inside for winter.
5. Transition the plant (over days or weeks) gradually to avoid shock.
6. Do not allow soil to dry out. Moderate, even moisture is best. Use a moisture meter to be sure.
7. Most citrus plants are self-pollinating; some benefit from pollination assistance (you or insects).
8. Treat spider mites with neem oil spray.
9. Remove mealybugs with rubbing alcohol.