A tangelo is a hybrid citrus fruit made by crossing a tangerine with a grapefruit or pomello. Most of the tangelos sold in modern marketplaces are created by farmers who intentionally crossbreed the fruits in order to highlight certain characteristics like sweetness, juiciness, or color. Crossbreeding does happen naturally, though, and some of the more interesting tangelo varieties are or once were “chance” crosses. Tangelos are popular around the world for their sweet-tart taste and long shelf life.
How the Fruit Came to Be
Many fruits and vegetables can be “crossbred,” which is basically a fancy way of saying that they are a mix between two related species. Most of the time this happens with produce that is already somewhat similar genetically. A granny smith apple can be crossed with a red delicious, for instance, but can’t normally pair with something like a grape or a banana. The practice is particularly common between citrus fruits, in part because they usually grow in the same climates and geographic spaces. When trees are already growing close to each other, it doesn’t usually take much to pollinate the flowers of one with the genetic material of another. Tangelos are a very popular — and successful — example of crossbreeding.
Just as there are many different kinds of tangerines and grapefruits, the tangelo possibilities are virtually limitless. Most food scholars believe that the first tangelos started growing in the wild in Eastern Asia, from China down through Thailand, some 3,000 years ago. Since then, food scientists have looked for ways to harness their flavor and produce them in a more uniform way.
Minneola tangelos are some of the most popular, at least in North American and European markets. This variety is typically made by crossing a Bowen grapefruit and a Dancy tangerine. The result is a fruit roughly the size of a navel orange that has a bright orange peel with a characteristic “knob” or “nipple” at the top. The peel is usually very easy to remove, and the fruit inside is juicy but only mildly sweet.
When the Minneola is crossed with a Clementine tangerine, the result is usually what is known as the “Nova” tangelo. This variety is normally a bit sweeter, and the fruit a bit darker — sometimes almost red in color. The so-called “Ugli®” fruit is a three-way cross between naturally growing Jamaican tangerines, grapefruits, and the Seville orange, and is also considered a tangelo variation. Most scholars think that the Ugli® was originally a product of sheer chance, but it has become so popular that it is now commercially grown and cultivated by Jamaican farmers for export.
The Importance of Precision
Most of the tangelos on the market today are carefully monitored and selected for taste, color, and shelf life. Food scientists and horticulturists tend to pay a lot of attention to how, exactly, tangelos are bred. Most tangelo trees are sterile, which means that they cannot reproduce without assistance. Farmers usually have better luck starting from seed or branch grafts than actually trying to cross-pollinate blooms. This requires more effort, but also tends to give more predictable results. Thanks to farmer precision and market regulation, grocers can usually rest assured that everything sold under a certain name — Minneola, for example — will be roughly the same; it also gives consumers confidence that something they tried and liked once will be something they can find again.
Season and Availability
Tangelos tend to be a winter fruit, with blossoms typically bursting in the early fall and fruits beginning to mature from mid-winter to early spring. Even climates that are more or less warm all year, like Jamaica, rarely produce tangelos on a constant basis. Part of this is because of how much work it takes to cross the breeds, but most of it has to do with the nature of the fruit itself as even in temperate climates, most trees bloom just once each year. Staggered greenhouse growing has made it possible to enjoy the fruits in the off-season in some places.
Availability often has more to do with distance from the source than overall crop yields. Some farmers try to optimize their tangelos for long life by selectively breeding for things like tough skin and thick fruit, but not all of these efforts are successful. As a result, some varieties do better when shipped over long distances — from Italy up to Norway, for instance, or from Florida to Minnesota — than do others. As a general rule, though, most tangelos do have a relatively long shelf life, and will stay fresh for several weeks after harvest.
There are many ways to enjoy the tangelo. It is common as a snack, and its easy-to-remove skin makes it an excellent addition to lunchboxes and packed meals. Many cooks use its segments as a side dish to grilled poultry or meats, or reduce it into sauces and dressings for green salads. The sweet-but-tangy zip of the tangelo can liven up many different meals, and can often work as an interesting substitute for orange.
Pharmaceutical Interactions and Precautions
People who are on cholesterol-lowering drugs that contain statins are usually advised to avoid grapefruit, which can hinder the drugs’ efficacy. Even though tangelos are part grapefruit, they are usually considered “safe” where statin interactions are concerned. Of course, anyone with specific concerns about how fruits or other foods might interact with their prescribed drug regimen should talk to a qualified medical care provider before making any decisions.