1. Not all oranges are orange.
In sub-tropical growing regions (like Brazil, the country that grows the most oranges in the world) there are never temperatures cold enough to break down the chlorophyll in the fruit’s skin, which means it may still be yellow or green even when it’s ripe. But because American consumers can’t fathom such a phenomenon, imported oranges get treated with ethylene gas to get rid of the chlorophyll and turn them orange.
This also means that Florida oranges tend to be yellower than California oranges, because they’re grown further south.
2. Most commercial fruits are clones.
Which, when you actually look at supermarket displays of perfectly identical apples and oranges and peaches, isn’t that shocking. Producers want specific varieties of fruit, called cultivars (say, Fuji apples or Bosc pears) to remain perfectly consistent, without all the unpredictable genetic mutations you get with old-fashioned sexual reproduction (pollinating flowers, planting seeds, and seeing what the heck comes up).
3. The clone tree armies are grown by grafting
If you ate a Macintosh apple and planted the seed, the tree it grew would produce apples that looked and tasted nothing like Macintoshes. So, instead of planting seeds, growers attach a cutting from the genetically desirable tree onto an existing branch or sapling (called the “rootstock”) so that the grafted bit produces apples genetically identical to those on the tree it was cut from. If you look closely at the tree in the photo, you can see that there are multiple types of apples on the different branches, all grafted onto one rootstock tree.
With seedless fruit, like some citrus, the necessity of grafting is even more extreme: Since the trees don’t produce seeds (originally a genetic mutation that was noticed and propagated because it’s so darn convenient), they’re incapable of reproducing without being cloned by humans.
4. Japanese Yubari cantaloupes are the most expensive fruit in the world; two melons once sold at auction for $23,500.
People in Japan pay astronomical prices for luxury fruit like tattooed apples and coddled cantaloupes, usually given as gifts. Demand has dropped in recent years, but the numbers are still pretty staggering. Get a closer look at one of these fancy fruit parlors here.
5. Cherry farmers hire helicopter pilots to air-dry their trees after it rains so that the cherries don’t split open.
Pilots get paid hundreds of dollars a day to be on stand-by during the summer in case it rains and trees need an emergency blow-drying. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s worth it for farmers who raise the delicate, expensive fruit. The job is dangerous; pilots are often injured in orchard crashes.
6. The apple you’re eating might be a year old.
Apples are for sale in grocery stores and farmers markets year round, even though their harvesting season (at least in the U.S.) only lasts a few months in the fall. HOW CAN IT BE? Well, increasingly sophisticated cold storage technology means it’s possible (and/or likely) that the crisp, juicy apple you’re eating in August 2013 was actually harvested in October 2012.
7. Bananas get artificially ripened (after being shipped) to one of seven “shades” of ripeness.
Bananas are shipped green because they’re too delicate and perishable otherwise, so distribution facilities use extremely precise storage technology to then trick bananas into ripening before they go to market. Here’s an explanation of the colors from this very interesting tour of the Banana Distributors of New York in the Bronx (one of just three facilities that process about 2 million bananas each week for all of New York City’s stores and vendors):
“The most popular shades are between 2.5 and 3.5, but much depends on the retailer’s size and target market. The grocery chain Fairway, which sources its bananas from Banana Distributors of New York, expects to hold bananas for a couple of days, and will therefore buy greener bananas than a smaller bodega that turns its stock over on a daily basis. ‘Street vendors,’ Rosenblatt notes, as well as shops serving a mostly Latin American customer base, ‘like full yellow.’”
8. Bananas, as we know them, are in danger of being completely wiped out by disease.
Despite the fact that there are more than 1,000 banana varieties on earth, almost every single imported banana on the commercial market belongs to a single variety, called the Cavendish. These bananas became dominant throughout the industry in the 1960s because they were resistant to a fungal disease (called Panama Race One) that wiped out what had previously been the most popular banana, the Gros Michel. But signs point, pretty convincingly, to the Cavendish’s own demise within the next decade. Here’s why:
1. Cavendish bananas are sterile and seedless, so they reproduce asexually (through suckers that grow off the “mother” plant), meaning that each plant is genetically identical.
2. This lack of genetic diversity makes all Cavendish bananas vulnerable to the threat of Tropical Race Four, a new, even more devastating fungal disease.
3. Race Four has already wiped out Cavendish bananas throughout Asia and Australia. Most growers view it as only a matter of time before the disease makes its way to Latin America, where it will make short work of the plantations that supply North American consumers.
If you’re interested to know more, read this fascinating 2011 New Yorker report on growers’ efforts to cope with Race Four, or check out journalist Dan Koeppel’s book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. And then eat a banana while tears stream down your face.
9. Donut peaches are a natural mutant peach variety, not a human-engineered fruit.
And not, alas, a cross between a donut and a peach. But they ARE delicious — firmer and more sweet and fragrant than most boring old spherical peaches. The lil flatties originated in China but have found enthusiastic fans worldwide in recent years.
10. U.S. raisin farmers aren’t allowed to sell all the raisins they grow; they must contribute to a “national raisin reserve” if supply exceeds demand.
No, really. The Raisin Administrative Committee is currently pursuing a legal vendetta against farmer Marvin Horne for refusing to contribute to the reserve and selling all of his raisins instead.
This isn’t as crazy as it sounds; most fruit growers sell according to rules set by associations intended to offset market fluctuation and protect their economic interests. But raisins are naturally more reservable than fresh, perishable fruit — and the RAC seems hell-bent on getting this raisin outlaw to toe the line.
11. Grapefruit can cause dangerous reactions with some prescription medications.
From the New York Times, last year:
“For 43 of the 85 drugs now on the list, consumption with grapefruit can be life-threatening, Dr. Bailey said. Many are linked to an increase in heart rhythm, known as torsade de pointes, that can lead to death.”
“Under normal circumstances, the drugs are metabolized in the gastrointestinal tract, and relatively little is absorbed, because an enzyme in the gut called CYP3A4 deactivates them. But grapefruit contains natural chemicals called furanocoumarins, that inhibit the enzyme, and without it the gut absorbs much more of a drug and blood levels rise dramatically.”
12. Cranberries don’t actually grow underwater.
Despite what you might imagine based on those Ocean Spray commercials, it’s only at harvest time that sandy cranberry bogs are artificially flooded with water. Cranberries have air pockets inside that let them float, which makes them easy to pick en masse.
But that’s only for berries that are destined to be juice, jelly, Craisins, etc. Whole fresh cranberries — the kind you buy in bags at Thanksgiving — are never flooded, instead getting “dry-harvested” by picking machines that comb the berries out.
13. Cranberries do BOUNCE.
This magic property (which is thanks to the same air pockets that lets cranberries float) was discovered in 1880 by the compellingly named cranberry innovator John “Peg Leg” Webb, who dropped a bunch of cranberries down the stairs. Growers today actually still test berries’ athletic abilities to determine their quality, and sort them accordingly, with a tool called the “bounce board separator” — the higher the bounce, the better the berry.
14. The leaves of the rhubarb plant are extremely poisonous.
The leaves contain kidney-damaging and potentially fatal amounts of oxalic acid, “a chemical compound found in bleach, metal cleaners and anti-rust products.” But the stalks are totally safe to eat, which, thank goodness, because they sure make tasty pie.
15. One pomegranate can hold more than 1,000 seeds.
Contrary to the Torah-based myth that every pomegranate has 613 seeds.
16. A strawberry isn’t technically a berry, or even a fruit.
Sorry, I know it hurts, but it’s (botanically) true. Berries, by definition, have their seeds on the inside, which strawberries clearly don’t. The plant produces a fleshy “false fruit” aka pseudocarp from its flower, and what we think of as the seeds on the outside are the “true” fruits. Bottom line: Whatever, they’re delicious.