How Grapefruit Got Its Unusual Name

Somewhat divisive for its bitter flavor, grapefruit is nevertheless a wildly popular citrus fruit. It's a classic breakfast food, but works well in other recipes like salads and cocktails, too.

The fruit's origins are a little murky. According to Art Culinaire, grapefruits developed around 300 years ago in Barbados. They likely developed as an accidental hybrid of an orange and pummelo when the plants cross-pollinated. As US Citrus explains, these kinds of mutations happen frequently in citrus plants, which are prone to spontaneous mutations.

Grapefruit was brought to the United States in 1823, but was initially grown for its appearance rather than its culinary value since these early grapefruits were too sour to appeal to the tastes of most consumers. However, the fruit was hit by another stroke of random luck: In 1929, a mutation in a Texas orchard led to the creation of the beloved Ruby Red grapefruit. Sweeter and redder than previous varieties, the fruit soon became a hit with Americans.

Despite several theories, the origins of the name are unclear

As the fruit originated in Barbados, so too did the word "grapefruit," according to Mental Floss. Initially, grapefruit was called "the forbidden fruit" or "Shaddocks," with "grapefruit" first appearing in an 1814 book, which notes that the fruit gets its name from "its resemblance in flavor to the grape." However, historians are skeptical of this origin story because, as anyone who's eaten a grapefruit knows, it tastes nothing like grapes. The most popular theory is that the name originated from the way that grapefruits grow, clustered together like bunches of grapes.

Other theories suggest that the fruit got its name because it really does taste like grapes — sea grapes, that is. Atlas Obscura explains that, at the time the word "grapefruit" first came into use in Barbados, the only "grapes" growing on the island would have been sea grapes — an unrelated fruit that resembles grapes but tastes bitter.

Whatever the origin of the fruit's unusual name, one thing's for sure: This lucky mutation has brought color and flavor to millions of tables and remains an enduring citrus staple.