Get pummelo’d

The rare, subtropical fruit makes a brief cameo this winter in the Sacramento Valley

Pick a winner: Can you find the pummelo? (Hint: It’s green on the outside, pink within.)

Pick a winner: Can you find the pummelo? (Hint: It’s green on the outside, pink within.)

The largest citrus fruit is also one of the very oldest: the pummelo.

This head-sized beast, which appears at first glance to be a giant grapefruit, originated in Southeast Asia a century or two before Christ, and so does best in tropical and subtropical climates. Yet farmers in Northern California manage to grow a small volume of cold-tolerant varieties, and the fruits are currently taking up their share of space in local produce stands and market stalls.

The pummelo, also spelled pomelo, can often be distinguished from the grapefruit by its plain size; pummelos, “Citrus maxima” in Latin, may grow to 20 pounds. More commonly, they weigh 2-3 pounds and run the size of a softball—or a grapefruit. And while the pummelo’s yellow to red flesh is often served in much the same way as that of the grapefruit, by most accounts, pummelos are sweeter and far less bitter than their smaller, more acrid cousins.

Some pummelo fans even consider the most alluring virtue of the pummelo to be that it is so different—and so much better—than the grapefruit.

Ray Sheehy, a home gardener and a member of the California Rare Fruit Growers, keeps three pummelo trees and several pummelo hybrids on his Woodland property. The best of the bunch may be the Chandler, he says, a pink-fleshed and very popular cultivar, and “the least like a grapefruit.” He also grows the Tahitian pummelo, which he enjoys for its sweetness balanced by a limelike flavor—and with hardly a note of grapefruit.

Among Sheehy’s pummelo hybrids is the cocktail grapefruit, a cross between a Siamese sweet pummelo and Frua mandarin with juicy flesh “just like an orange.” To taste like an orange, evidently, is a fine thing for a pummelo enthusiast.

Local gardener Joe Real, featured in these pages for his multigrafted backyard fruit orchard in Davis (“Gone bananas”; SN&R Green Days; December 24, 2009), grows seven pummelo cultivars and hybrids on his one citrus tree, whose burdened branches sag in season with Chandler, Mato Buntan, Sarawak, Hirado Buntan, Reinking, Melogold and poor man’s pummelos.

What is the biggest of them all? Interestingly, says Real, any of the many pummelo cultivars is liable to attain freakish size if simply allowed the time to amass it. Pummelos, already unusual for the two growing seasons (or 18 months) that their blossoms require to mature into ripe fruits, will grow and grow and grow until picked, according to Real, whose favorite pummelo is the Magallanes Davao, not to be found in California’s markets, but a familiar fruit in his Philippines homeland.

“It has very mild acid, is very sweet, and the pulps melt in your mouth,” Real said.

Locally, he said, smaller Asian markets and farmers’ markets often carry a selection of pummelos. He favors Seafood City, at 6051 Mack Road, as a reliable outlet.

The smallest of California’s major citrus crops, pummelos occupied just under 2,000 acres of real estate in 2008 (compare that to nearly 140,000 acres of navel oranges). Most grow in Tulare County, where farmers still have a few fruits clinging to their trees. The harvest begins each year in late November and runs into early March, though cold-stored pummelos will last into the spring.