Mapo – A Favorite Italian Fruit

Mapos are one of several different crosses between mandarin oranges and grapefruits.

by Rick Gush
mapo fruit
Unlike in the United States, mapos are abundant in Italy. Photo by Rick Gush

Today’s Italian markets feature a fruit usually seen only there: mapo. The first citrus fruit crops harvested in Sicily each year is the mapo, starting during the month of September. Picked in October are clementines, also known as tangerines. Navel oranges and lemons are harvested mostly in November, here in Italy, and before Christmas, the first of the many blood oranges are picked. In February, some more lemons and tangerines are harvested, and Valencia oranges are picked in March.

Mapos are one of several different crosses between mandarin oranges and grapefruits. Some of these crosses are called tangelos. The other well-known mandarin-grapefruit cross are Minneola and Orlando tangelos. Mapos don’t have the big bulge that Minneolo tangelos do, and don’t look like big tangerines like Orlando tangelos do, but they do look like a small green and yellow orange. The thin skin peels easily and the segments separate reasonably well. There is another citrus family member called the Osage orange, which is also sometimes called mapo, because its botanical name is Maclura pomifera, which is shortened to mapo. In Italian, mandarino + pompelmo = mapo.

Mapos grow like other citrus, as tall as 35 feet if left alone. Commercial growers heavily prune the upright, spiny shoots to favor the smaller, pendulant branches with heavier fruiting growth, which keep the trees at a height around 12 feet. This makes harvesting the mapo easier. Mapo trees are not particularly cold tolerant, and the fruit doesn’t seem to set well on the northernmost plantings. If warm-weather citrus, such as grapefruit, grow well in an area, so will the mapo. Mapo are classic, alternate-year bearers, and are self-sterile, so they need to be planted among other varieties that will pollinate the flowers. Mapo trees are impressive producers, growing almost as much fruit per acre as heavy-producing lemons, once the basic requirements are met.

I know there were some commercial mapo plantings in the United States, in Florida and California, in the previous century, but a quick Internet search doesn’t reveal any such plantings today. I’m sure if a grower managed to get some mapo trees or grafting material, the fruit would sell well, at least as part of the continuing American adulation of genuine Italian foods.

Most of the Italians I know use mapo fruit to make delicious, fresh-squeezed juice, which is a bit different than any other citrus I’ve ever tasted. I sometimes slice the fruit to eat at breakfast when I’m too lazy to make a whole glass of fresh juice. The most famous use of mapo is now the Sicilian liqueur named Mapo Mapo, a sweet, peach-colored aperitif that tastes just fine.

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