Recognizing citrus trees when they have no fruits


It might seem silly, I know (and probably it is). But you will impress your little gardener friends with this pill of botanic knowledge because… who knows how to tell which citrus tree is it without looking at the fruit? Just a few botany freaks.

Brooke Cagle

A bit of botany

Before getting into the little differences among them, it’s good to know that the Citrus genus are a group of little trees (5-10 m), evergreen and with acid fruits native of Asia.

It’s fairly hard to characterize the Citrus genus because they hybridize pretty easily among themselves and this has resulted in numerous edible and non-edible varieties. According to the classification proposed by Mabberley, there are only three natural species, and all varieties are cultivars of these three:

  • Citrus medica: It is the cider. Lemon trees (Citrus x limon) are cider hybrids.
  • Citrus maxima: This is the pomelo. It’s sometimes misidentified with the grapefruit, which is a hybrid (Citrus x paradisi). Limes (Citrus x aurantifolia), bitter oranges (Citrus x aurantium) and sweet organges (Citrus x sinensis), are Citrus maxima hybrids as well.
  • Citrus reticulata: They are the tangerines and such.

Ashim D'Silva

Bear in mind that this is a very simplistic explanation, as there are countless varieties and sometimes it’s not clear what species dominates in the hybridization. Besides, there are a few more non-hybrid citrus trees in the wildness.

So… Citrus trees are a crazy, very alike family. Being able to distinguish them requires a trained eye, as the devil in in the details. Madness!

Which are the differences?


Pomelo (Citrus maxima)


  • Its leaves are the biggest and broadest.
  • The edges are lightly serrated (less than the leaves of the lemon tree).
Subtle differences: pomelo (left) & lemon (right).
Subtle differences: pomelo (left) & lemon (right).
  • The base of the leaf is rounded.
  • The petiole has huge, heart shaped wings.

Sweet orange (Citrus x sinensis)

naranjo dulce

  • The leaves are big and broad, but less than in the pomelo.
  • The edges are usually entire. Very few times they are lightly serrated.
  • The petiole hasn’t got wings or, if it has them, they are very small and narrow. It is articulated where it joins the leaf blade.

Bitter orange (Citrus x aurantium)

naranjo amargo

  • Leaves are very similar to the sweet orange.
  • The biggest difference is in the petiole: the bitter orange leaves do have tiny heart shaped wings (smaller than the wings in the pomelo leaves).
My sweet orange tree has tiny wings: bitter orange (bottom) & sweet orange (top).
My sweet orange tree has tiny wings: bitter orange (bottom) & sweet orange (top).
  • Its flowers have the best and strongest smell : )

Lemon tree (Citrus x limon)


  • Its crown is less compact (less “dense”) than the rest.
  • Leaves are big and broad, but not as big as the leaves of the pomelo tree.
  • Serrated edges.
  • The veins are pronounced in both sides of the leaf blade.
  • The petiole is not winged (never, ever).
  • Some people say that their leaves smell like lemons when you squeeze them, but… again… madness!

Tangerine (Citrus reticulata)

There are no tangerine trees in my garden, so I can’t show you a photo : (

  • Leaves are narrower than the others.
  • The base and the tip are sharp.
  • The petiole hasn’t got wings and it is articulated where it joins the leaf blade.

These are the citrus trees more common where I live, but it’s different in other places. Would you be able to recognize a lime tree? How about a kumquat? I wouldn’t know! (just for now…).

Pin me! Can you spot the difference? ;)
Pin me! Can you spot the difference? 😉

Image credit:

  1. Brooke Cagle
  2. Ashim D’Silva
  3. The rest are my own.


  1. Angela
    Wednesday July 29th, 2020

    Thank you so much for this! I was scouring the internet trying to identify my 2 young trees. Your post here was so helpful! Turns out they’re sweet orange trees and I couldnt be happier!

  2. Yeni Beniítez
    Thursday August 20th, 2020

    Gracias por la información me gusto mucho !!! Hace poco me regalaron, tres arboles pequeños y me dijeron que eran de limón mandarina, pero las hojas se parecen mucho a las de el naranjo amargo …. en mi país naranjas agrias. La naranja agria o naranjo amargo y el limón mandarina , son diferentes variedades, y sus hojas son muy parecidas? Saludos desde mi patria, .Honduras , América Central.

    • Eme
      Tuesday September 15th, 2020

      ¡Hola! La naranja agria, el limón, la mandarina… Son distintas especies, pero pertenecen al mismo género botánico (“Citrus”), por eso se parecen mucho 🙂

  3. Friday September 4th, 2020

    GRACIASSSS !!!! me salvaron !!! habia germinado citricos y con el viento y otras cuestiones fui perdiendo los cartelitos !!!

    Monday October 26th, 2020

    Muchas gracias por esas explicaciones tan claras y visibles, despues de eso lo vemos todo mas claro antes de eso todas heran iguales, muchas gracias

  5. Camilo Abel
    Tuesday October 27th, 2020

    Excelente la información me sirvió bastante

  6. Sandra Pineda
    Friday March 12th, 2021

    Muy interesante!

  7. Luisa Gol
    Monday March 22nd, 2021

    esta muy bien la explicacion, mejor que lo que hay en otros sitios, si quiere yo tengo mandarina (no se la variedad) le puedo enviar foto, y de limonero tambien.

  8. Rosy
    Friday April 23rd, 2021

    Muchas gracias!!! Mi hijo compro supuestamente naranja injertada pero yo tenia unos plantoncitos de un año y note la diferencia del peciolo que dices… creo q se equivocaron y le dieron otra, mas bien parece un pomelo. Saludos

  9. Gustavo Brenes
    Tuesday May 4th, 2021

    Hola, necesito ayuda, germiné varios cítricos, naranjos y limón mandarino le llamamos en Costa Rica pero un familiar los enredó

  10. Coco
    Friday November 26th, 2021

    Hola. Acabo de leer tu artículo y te quería dar las gracias. Me ha resultado muy útil ya que acabo de comprar un terreno y hay numerosos árboles de cítricos y no tenía la menos idea de como diferenciar los naranjos dulces de los amargos.
    Genial la info y las fotos de las hojas ☺️

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