When you look at a grapefruit, do you see paradise?
The botanical name for a grapefruit tree is Citrus x paradisii. The x which separates the genus (Citrus) and species (paradisii) in any botanical name means that the plant in question is a hybrid. A grapefruit, so-called because its fruits hang in clusters like grapes, is a hybrid between our familiar sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) and a pomelo or shaddock (Citrus maxima), the largest of all citrus fruits, which can grow up to one foot in diameter and weigh as much as seven pounds.
From the time of Columbus’ first journeys to the New World, circumnavigating European explorers got into the habit of voyaging with fruit and vegetable seeds from one end of the Earth to the other. It was this disseminating practice, for example, that brought seeds of rudimentary strawberries from Virginia and from Chile onto the same plot of ground in Brittany, on the northwest coast of France. The ancestor of the luscious strawberries we know today was a result of random cross-pollination between the Virginian and Chilean plants, grown from those seeds, that intermingled with one another in France.
Every kind of pepper, whether hot (chili) or sweet (bell), originated in the Western Hemisphere, too. Columbus was the first to bring peppers, which he found growing on the island of Hispaniola (today’s Dominican Republic and Haiti), to Europe. But peppers, being of tropical origin, went much further east than the proto-strawberries mentioned above, eventually arriving in every Asian land.
The explorers’ seed dispersal projects did not just go from West to East, but from East to West as well. Orange seeds from China and pomelo seeds from Indonesia were brought to the island of Barbados, the most southeastern island in the Caribbean, not far from South America’s shores. The trees that sprouted from these seeds cross pollinated and one of the fruits that resulted was a grapefruit. In 1750, “forbidden fruit” was the name that was first given to it. George Washington, who visited Barbados in that same year, recorded in his journal that “the forbidden fruit” was offered to him one evening when he was dining out.
There is both contradiction and irony in grapefruit being named forbidden fruit. First of all, since it was a hybrid created with the help of human efforts, the grapefruit tree could hardly have been the tree upon which forbidden fruit grew in the Garden of Eden, which Adam and Eve occupied for less than one day. Yet, as modern pharmacology has demonstrated, grapefruit is a forbidden fruit for many people on account of its toxic interaction with a wide variety of medications. Grapefruit contains chemicals that block the enzyme that metabolizes many drugs so that these drugs quickly build up in a concentrated and toxic form. Many psychotropic drugs, including certain tranquilizers and anti-depressants, as well as some blood pressure stabilizers and sleeping pills, and certain HIV and ADHD medications, should not be taken with grapefruit juice and it is recommended that your physician be consulted regarding grapefruit interaction before taking any medication for the first time. Even a wake-me-up cup of coffee, thanks to its caffeine, will have a stronger impact when drunk after imbibing a glass of grapefruit juice.
The above discussion was prompted by an email from Steven Matthews, who lives in Los Angeles near Culver City and Marina Del Rey. Matthews is in search of a white grapefruit and is emphatic about not wanting a ‘Ruby Red.’ I completely understand his frame of mind. Over the years, I have encountered considerable frustration on the part of those who tried to grow ‘Ruby Red’grapefruit, a chance mutation found on a tree growing in Texas in 1929, just about the only good news from that year, which marked the onset of the Great Depression. But just because this was good news for the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where nearly all of Texas citrus is produced, it has not turned out to be of any great significance for backyard fruit growers in Los Angeles. It only requires a quick glance at a map to understand why ‘Ruby Red’ grapefruit may struggle to thrive in Los Angeles. Ruby Red’s growing region is at the southern most tip of Texas, where the weather is considerably more tropical than in Los Angeles.
As much as I have heard complaints about ‘Ruby Red,’ I have heard rave reviews about ‘Oro Blanco,’ a grapefruit variety with white pulp. This is also easily understandble since ‘Oro Blanco’ is a hybrid developed and patented in Riverside, whose climate closely resembles that of Los Angeles. ‘Oro Blanco’ reaches around 12 feet tall and, besides being grown as a stand alone specimen, makes a wonderfully tall and lush, yet informal, fruit-bearing evergreen hedge or screen.
Coffee is another crop that went from East to West, originating in Ethiopia and first grown in the Western world, like grapefruit, in the Caribbean. Following a recent column that mentioned growing coffee locally, I received an email from Lisa Florea with a photo of the most glorious coffee plant I have ever seen. “Our tree is several years old and grows in full sun in Santa Ana. We do get a few burnt leaves now and then but the tree is pretty happy. We’ve harvested, roasted, and drank our coffee beans a couple of times. We get a really good quality coffee…reminiscent of Starbucks but milder. It takes some time to do all the steps from tree to cup but it’s so fun to do.The red berries are good to eat. It likes an all-purpose fertilizer and sometimes needs iron. I just wait until the leaves start to yellow a little and then fertilize, around every two months. We also get an ocean breeze every afternoon that comes up along the Santa Ana River.” That ocean breeze might provide the sort of weather moderation that makes it possible for Florea to grow coffee. I remember visiting the home of Bill Paylen, the legendary horticulturist, who grew every sort of bromeliad in his front yard as well as seldom seen Vireya rhododendrons in patio containers. Paylen, too, benefitted from a daily ocean breeze.
Tip of the Week: Two local sources for ‘Oro Blanco’ grapefruit trees are close to each other, off the 126 Freeway, as you go west from the 5 Freeway in Santa Clarita: La Verne Nursery in Piru and Otto & Sons Nursery in Fillmore. They supply retail nurseries throughout the greater Los Angeles area. Papaya Tree Nursery in Granada Hills also grows ‘Oro Blanco’ trees.
Only pomelo photo is by Joshua Siskin. Other two photos are by Lisa Florea and courtesy of UC Riverside.