|A Citrus Family Reunion
How the pomelo, grapefruit,
lemon, citron, Kaffir
lime, mandarin, blood
orange and tangelo originated in the shadow of the
Himalayas, traveled their separate ways, and got
back together again in California's farmers markets
Eons ago, the citrus
fruit diverged in three general directions from a point
of origin in the shadow of the Himalayan mountains near
present-day Bhutan. A wide array of representatives from
each major branch of the familyand many in
betweenreunite each winter in farmers markets
across southern California.
The line of citrus that branched into southeast Asia
yielded the pomelo (also spelled pummelo). In another time and
place, the pomelo would sire the grapefruit, which now
far overshadows its southeast Asian granddad in the
United States. But dozens of southern California market
farmers are bringing the pomelo back.
Pomelos certainly contribute visual drama to the winter
markets. They look like overinflated grapefruits. The
largest are the size of bowling balls. They have a thick
peel and even thicker layer of white pith, which accounts
for the pomelos appeal to preservers. The flesh is
sweeter and chewier than grapefruit.
Most of the customers for pomelos fall into one of two
categories, says Fred Campbell, a Fallbrook grower. There
are those who have never seen a pomelo before and
exclaim, "What the heck is that!" And there are
Asian customers who know it well, and are often so
particular about it that they want it with a stem and
What do you do with a pomelo leaf? The Food of China, by
E.N. Anderson, has this suggestion: "Water in which
pomelo skins or leaves have been soaked is commonly used
to drive away ghosts and evil spirits."
The grapefruit is
a distinct species of citrus. But it was never mentioned
in ancient Chinese texts that catalogued other citrus
fruits, leading botanists to suspect that it got its
start outside of Asia from a cross in the wild between a
pomelo and a sweet orange. Some have gone so far as to
peg the union to the Caribbean in the 1750s. (About a
century earlier an English seafarer, Captain Shaddock,
brought the pomelo to the West Indies, where it joined
the orange, which was introduced by Columbus on his
second voyage in 1494.)
Grapefruit need long periods of uninterrupted heat to get
sweet and stay thin-skinned. So farmers in coastal
counties couldnt grow themuntil plant
breeders at the University of Californias Citrus
Research Center in Riverside came to the rescue with
genes from a pomelo. Out of their efforts to breed a
cooler-climate grapefruit, the Oroblanco and
Mellowgold were born in 1958. They are siblings from a
cross made that year between a Siamese acidless pomelo
from Thailand and a white grapefruit, says Dr. Mikeal
Roose, a botanist at the university.
They have the eye-catching heft of their Thai parent but
have a thinner skin. They are sweeter than straight
grapefruit, even when grown in a cool climate. Moreover,
since the pomelo has two sets of chromosomes while the
grapefruit has four, the offspring were left with three,
which renders them seedless.
Researchers at the university crossed the same Thai
pomelo with a mandarin to produce another interesting
hybrid, a sweet, easy-to-peel (but seedy) fruit called
the cocktail, which occasionally turns up in farmers
markets. Unlike the Mellowgold and Oroblanco, which were
patented in 1981, the cocktail was never officially
released by the university. Apparently someone swiped a
bud years ago, says Roose. All the cocktails out there
today are clones of it.
Lemons are the leading scion of the line of citrus that branched south from
the Himalayan foothills into the plains of todays
India and Pakistan. One of the oldest artistic
representations of a citrus fruit, an earring found at
4,000-year-old Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus River valley,
depicts a lemon. Or perhaps it is a citron, an older species that may have spun off lemons
somewhere along the evolutionary trail.
A handful of certified producers in southern California
grow citrons, including Steven White, of Escondido, who
has 30 trees. They are grown for their peel and pith,
which is fortunate: theres not much else to a
citron. Candied, the peel shows up most often in
fruitcake. White says citrons are also used in both
Jewish and Chinese religious ceremonies.
Other people use citrons as an air freshener. When the
skin is scored, they exude a refreshing citrus aroma for
several weeks, after which they can still be chopped up
and sprinkled over vegetables or fish, White says.
White grows another old oddball, the Kaffir lime. White says Kaffirs are grown primarily for
their leaves, which are used in Thai cooking. But when he
took some of the fruit to the Carlsbad market not long
ago, pretty much on a lark, he was surprised to find that
Vietnamese women snapped them up. White has learned that
they juice the Kaffir limes, which are extremely acidic,
and use it for a hair wash.
At the opposite end of the sweet-sour spectrum, the Meyer lemon is one of the more modern additions to the
family. It is a relatively sweet fruit that botanist
presume to be the product of a cross between a lemon and
an orange that occurred in China sometime in the last 300
or 400 years.
A third citrus line to diverge from the
familys point of origin in south Asia, the oranges
and mandarins, branched to the north into China. Not long
ago, mandarins, also known as tangerines, were a treat
that arrived around Christmas. Now, one variety is widely
available as early as late October. By March many who
grow for farmers markets are more than half way through
the succession of six or more different varieties that
they grow to assure a staggered harvest. Fremonts and
Pixies are among the most common midseason varieties.
Plain old oranges, which tend to be mid-season valencias
this time of year, are not without their own genetic
variations. The blood orange, for
example, is a member of the citrus family that may have
evolved in Malta or Sicily within the last several
Campbell, of Fallbrook, has more than 500 trees of the
variety, which he says was common in California in the
1930s when he was growing up. He prefers to call them
Moro Burgundy oranges instead of blood oranges.
"That name doesnt sit too well with the
ladies," he explains.
The tangelo is another wayward cousin in the citrus clan, a cross
between a white marsh grapefruit and a Dancy tangerine. A
seedless fruit that is easy to peel, tangelos are
harvested from late January to June. The tangelo embodies
the genetic range of the citrus clan, all in one fruit.
"It begins the season tasting like a grapefruit. It
ends the season like a sweet tangerine," explains
Jeanne Warren, of the Tangelo Rancho, in Piru.
Tangelos are also fickle about their shape. They
"want to be a different shape every year," says
Warren. Theyre usually pear-shaped, but rarely
round, so they cant be readily handled by the
packing houses and therefore dont often turn up in