Better Off Red

It’s not all sweetness and light in the grapefruit groves of the Rio Grande Valley.
Illustration by Jason Holley

No beast on this planet eats bitter produce, unless forced by dire circumstance. But man eats grapefruit, and therefore is no beast. Grapefruit is bitter because it contains a flavonoid called naringin, one of many bad-tasting compounds Mother Nature created to protect plants from hungry animals and to let animals know which plants are likely to hurt them. Naringin can, in fact, hurt us: it interacts in unpredictable ways with many common medications, including antihistamines and blood-pressure drugs. Yet humans, perversely, have developed a taste for bad tastes, coffee chief among them, along with beer, which tastes, smells, and looks like urine, and scotch, which tastes like mossy wood. Nonetheless, there is a limit to how much bitterness the average person can tolerate, which is why grapefruit is typically leavened with a naringin-masking antidote at the juice factory or with a sprinkling of sugar at the breakfast table. Except in Texas, of course, a magical land where, among other blessings bestowed upon us by the partnership of God and Texas A&M, grapefruit is red, not pink or white, and almost always sweet.

The Rio Red Grapefruit grown in Texas is so sweet because it is naturally—using that word in the loosest possible sense—low in naringin. This, along with an alluring hue that draws shoppers to the produce section like bees to a honeysuckle bush, is why the Rio Red is widely considered the world’s best grapefruit. Florida grows a lot more grapefruit than Texas, but much of the Sunshine State’s annual harvest consists of pink and white varieties bound for the juicing plant. Our fruit is meant to be eaten right out of the peel, which means that the Texas grapefruit business is very much a beauty contest. Every fruit has to be plump, unblemished, and virtually seedless, and the color has to be just so: gold with a warm red blush on the outside and a deep, pleasing ruby red on the inside. The red varieties developed in Texas—where all red grapefruits originated—are legendary in the citrus industry. Budwood from Texas nurseries was used to create a red grapefruit industry not only in Florida and California but also in South Africa, India, and Australia. In 1993 the red grapefruit, which is by far the biggest fruit or tree nut commodity in Texas, was named the official state fruit. It has become an icon of Texas at its best, like boots or bluebonnets or Big Tex.

How Texas came to have the world’s most coveted grapefruit is a story that begins with a little luck during a very unlucky time. In 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, a McAllen grower named A. E. Henninger noticed a fruit with a curious red blush on one of his Pink Marsh grapefruit trees, the kind of natural mutation—known as a “sport”—occasionally found in all orchards. Most sports are barely noticeable, but this one was startling. The flesh was ruby red and much sweeter than any grapefruit the grower had ever tasted. Henninger carefully cut fresh new buds from the branch bearing the mutant fruit and grafted them onto other trees, which began producing red fruit as well. The sweet new variety put the Rio Grande Valley on the map and resuscitated a moribund industry, not only in Texas but also in Florida and California. In the years that followed, similar mutations were found across the Valley, and soon each grower began developing his own strain of red fruit, named, inevitably, for himself. (In the mid-thirties, you could buy a box of Shary Red, Curry Red, Fawcett Red, or Webb’s Redblush Seedless.) Henninger eventually patented his variety—the first citrus patent granted in the United States—under the name Ruby Red, and that moniker was soon attached to all Texas red grapefruit.

Since the cloned trees took years to mature and bear fruit, developing and perfecting new varieties was a painstakingly slow process. That began to change in the sixties, when a researcher named Richard Hensz started irradiating seedlings in his lab at the Citrus Center, in Weslaco, a research arm of the old Texas A&I system. Suddenly there were dozens of new mutations, which Hensz carefully culled and tested in the decades that followed, in a never-ending quest to find the perfect grapefruit. In 1984 he unveiled the Rio Red, the culmination of his life’s work and the new standard in grapefruit perfection. By 1990 almost every orchard in the Valley was planted in Rio Red, and Texas grapefruit was the envy of citrus growers the world over.

But nothing gold—or in this case, red—can stay. There is a lot that can go wrong in the citrus business—rust mites, mealybugs, foot rot—but since 2006, Valley growers have been fixated on a single threat that dwarfs every other: Huanglongbing, better known as citrus greening disease. The pestilence is caused by a bacteria that is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, a tiny, aphid-like bug that seems destined to replace the boll weevil as the state’s most hated insect. Citrus growers in other parts of the world have long contended with greening disease, but it did not hit the United States until 1998, when psyllids from South Asia began showing up along the east coast of Florida, like a million miniature Godzillas rising from the sea. By 2006 citrus greening had exploded in groves all over Florida. 

There is no cure for the disease, which chokes off the arteries that carry nutrients to a tree’s leaves and fruit. Florida lost thousands of trees in that first year, and total industry losses since 2006 have exceeded $3.6 billion. Florida citrus was quarantined, but the psyllids continued to spread across the country, and growers in Texas decided their only option was a massive preemptive strike. They embarked on a highly coordinated campaign of heavy pesticide spraying, in the hopes of forestalling for as long as possible the inevitable day when infected psyllids established a beachhead in Texas. On January 13, 2012, the day the Valley had been

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