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Throwback Thursday: History of Citrus in the Rio Grande Valley

Throwback Thursday

BROWNSVILLE, Texas – There was quite a buzz in the Rio Grande Valley in the 1920’s and it concerned citrus. Citrus was in existence in the common flow of mankind and the commercial flow 4,000 years ago. Coming from China, it was carried on the trade routes going over the edge of the Mediterranean and came to the new world via the West Indies.

It is often said that the grapefruit, in particular, wasn’t a grapefruit. It resembled a Pomelo. There is not an original thing about the grapefruits you see on the shelves today. It is a complete hybrid. The Pomelo was a white meat fruit. It did not have nearly the sweetness or the color that are in Ruby Reds. In Barbados there was a hybrid that was produced around the early 1700’s and it was between the Barbados orange and the Pomelo. It made its way to Florida around 1823 and was really the starch of the grapefruit industry for North America.

It is often stated that the upper Rio Grande Valley, the Mission and Edinburg area, was the birthplace of the grapefruit. Not quite true because there was one stellar figure that was on the scene. Celestin Jagou had an orchard of 500 Orange trees, 500 Persian lime trees and other citrus that he was growing from 1890 to 1895. There were land speculators that thought that the grapefruit was going to be the salvation of the agricultural empire for the Rio Grande Valley. They marched onto that scene very heavily.

In 1919 there was a project outside of Brownsville what we now call Rancho Viejo and it was the Noriega plantation. Don Alfredo Noriega plowed up about 5,000 acres and he wanted to produce the world’s largest grapefruit orchard. At the same time, John Shary in the upper valley about 1919 going into 1923, was in headlong production of grapefruit and oranges. In the 1940’s, 1950’s and the 1960’s there were great freezes that took out a lot of the citrus production that was in the area. Originally there was about 200,000 acres. It is now to about 12,000 acres. In the great freeze of 1983, it almost wiped out the entire citrus crop.

The Rio Grande Valley replanted with everything that had a red to it hence we got the Ruby Red, the Rio Star and those hybrid varieties that lead the world. It is said that the taste of RGV grapefruits is considered by all to be the best in the world.

There are certain flavonoids that are in the fruit that are far more distinct from what you would find in Florida or California. This actually is a hybrid going back to the Pomelo. There was a man that came upon the scene that was very important in the hybridization of this. Adolf Dittman, in the 1960’s and 1970’s perfected the Ruby Red grapefruit and it spread all through the Rio Grande Valley. He took it from there and produced other strains.

That was the start of what we see today in the red meat grape fruit and the rest is history.

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