It might seem strange to consider a fruit’s lineage, but the grapefruit we know and love today is an interesting result of hundreds of years of evolution, careful breeding practices and, above all, organic accidents and serendipitous discoveries. Although similar, the different varieties that appear in our produce aisles today offer various flavors and applications.
The interconnected, incestuous web of grapefruit lineage commences with a wild fruit indigenous to the Caribbean. A hybrid of the pomelo and orange, it was exceedingly sour, filled with seeds, and often disregarded in the tropics. Introduced in Florida in the 19th century, farmers began propagating trees that created sweet, seedless fruit low in acid. It didn’t take long before grapefruit was established in southern Texas where it flourished thanks to consistent warm days and fertile soil.
A pink, happy accident
After the Florida white grapefruit was transplanted in Texas, an observant farmer detected a pink-fleshed grapefruit that had unexpectedly materialized from one of his white grapefruit trees. Known as a spontaneous limb sport, this phenomenon of mutation is a natural occurrence in trees. The discovery sprung the farmer into action; he successfully isolated the limb in order to breed a new cultivar. The pink grapefruit hybrid was born, which has since evolved into sweeter, redder, less-acidic varieties such as the Ray Ruby, Marsh Ruby, Star Ruby, Rio Star, Rio Red and Ruby Red grapefruits.
Thanks to steadfast breeding programs, growers, horticulturists and universities continue to advance the industry developing trees that prosper in adverse weather conditions, withstand challenges posed in shipping, and stave off disease and pests. Most importantly, these grapefruit pioneers, and the many who came before them, can be credited with transforming a rather unsavory fruit into the beloved, versatile citrus staple the world enjoys today.
Texas, Florida and California grow the vast majority of grapefruit commercially in this country, and the US is second only to China in production. The USDA projects global consumption will reach a new record high this year thanks to increased supply, and exports are expected to rise to their highest level in three years.
The grapefruit family tree
With so many varieties, the family tree depicts only a fraction of the dozens of grapefruit options cultivated and sold in stores and nurseries across this country and the world. Most varieties share common ancestors, and there are often indistinguishable differences between those in the pink and red branch of the family.
Know your varieties
Although generally interchangeable, white and pink or red grapefruit each have slightly different qualities best suited for certain applications in your recipes.
Here are a few popular varieties commonly found in grocery stores today and inspiration for ways to incorporate the dynamic fruit in your sweet and savory creations.
White or yellow grapefruit
White grapefruit’s tart, slightly bitter and distinctive flavor sets it apart from other citrus including its pink counterpart, which tends to be sweeter and milder. The white grapefruit adds a subtle tang to both savory and sweet dishes, and its higher acidity lends itself to applications where a stronger grapefruit flavor is desired. Try white grapefruit in marinades, vinaigrettes, baked goods, ice cream and cocktails, or use the fruit in contrast to pink grapefruits and oranges in a citrus salad.
Duncan: White and very seedy, this is the closest ancestor to the original grapefruit raised in Florida from the Caribbean. Today it is primarily used for juice and processed segments.
White Marsh: This seedless white variety is likely the most popular in this category thanks to its quintessential sweet-tart flavor and fragrant scent.
Melogold & Oroblanco: These white-fleshed hybrids were developed and patented by the University of California, Riverside. Each a cross between a pomelo and a White Marsh grapefruit, these oversized grapefruit with thick rinds are sweet with low acidity.
Pink or red grapefruit
Pink grapefruits dominate the grapefruit section in most markets. Their irresistible pink hue adds a pop of color to any dish or drink. Though suitable for most recipes that call for grapefruit, think pink for fruit platters, salads and salsas, glazes and sauces, jams and marmalades, sorbets and granitas, and any drink of choice including smoothies, nonalcoholic spritzers and cocktails.
Pink Marsh: This accidental pink mutation was discovered from the limb of a White Marsh. Many future cultivars stemmed off the Pink Marsh including the Ruby Red variety, which later sprouted many of the desirable deeper pink or red varieties grown in Texas today.
Ruby Red: Though technically pink, the seedless Ruby Red is one of the oldest varieties grown in Texas. It might be the most popular in this category due its wide commercial availability, sweet-tart flavor and juicy flesh.
Red Varieties: The 20th century brought many new variations of pink and red grapefruit with blushed rinds, striking bright-red interiors and tantalizing sweet pulp with a hint of sour. Common reds are marketed with the names Ray Ruby, Flame and Rio Star, the primary crop sold by South Tex Organics which is a hybrid of two other reds, the Rio Red and Star Ruby.