South African nursery on cusp of sweet grapefruit success
‘Sweet Sunrise’ is on the cusp of being grown commercially in South Africa and further afield more than 30 years after the Jackson low seeded cultivar was first discovered by Leon Esselen’s father in the late 70s.
Ferdi Esselen was an active grapefruit propagator bringing Star Ruby seeds from Texas and developing them for commercial growth in South Africa back in the mid-70s.
Ferdi started developing the Jackson low seeded cultivar in the late 70s on the family nursery near Malalane, close to the southern entrance of Kruger National Park.
“It was a branch mutation we saw in a farm and we grew it locally. We planted a lot in the 70s, we nearly lost interest in it. Eventually we got a low seeded branch mutation from a mother tree in a trial block,” explained 52-year-old Leon Esselen.
He was just 16 at the time but he remembers his father being told the fruit, the size of a large tennis ball, was too small to market.
But the grapefruit’s unsually sweet taste and the positive reaction they received from individuals who ate it meant the Esselen family never gave up on the idea of commercially developing it.
“We knew from the start that people loved it because when they tasted it they always came back for more.
“The thing people like about the fruit is it’s low acidity and its very high internal quality. It’s different from a normal bitter grapefruit,” enthuses Leon.
The fruit has also gone down well in Japan where a sample carton was sent in August from Leon’s trial block.
“We had a very good reaction from children in Japan. They loved it, they said it was something different. Children normally don’t like bitter things.”
Leon says it has taken some time to clear the cultivar of viruses and get it accredited. He is also delighted that industry marketing has changed with more flexibility and creativity to pushing different types of fruit.
Last week he started budding the first 3,000 Sweet Sunrise trees which are going to be marketed to a customer in Limpopo province who will start commercial plantings in 2013.
“Within the next four years 100 hectares of the cultivar will be planted in South Africa and it will extend to other countries. My father is very proud to get it on the road for marketing and planting.”
Leon explains his father, now aged 80, still takes an active interest in the nursery.
“He comes in every second week to the nursery. In season I take him to the orchards and we get customers coming in groups to look at trial blocks. He’s very active and busy on the farm.”
Leon is a fourth generation citrus grower with his great grandfather Louis Esselen exporting the family’s first citrus produce back in 1908.
“He had a farm close to Pretoria but he was also the private secretary to the then prime minister General Jan Snuts. My father Ferdi relocated the farm to Lowveld which has a warmer climate for grapefruit production.”
CitroGold are managing the licensing of commercial plantings of cultivar in counter-seasonal northern hemisphere countries such as Israel, Tunisia and the U.S.