California's Century-Old Orchards Provide a Link to the Vanishing Past
I’ll admit it: I’m a fruit geek. I almost never pass up a chance to buy a strange melon or stone fruit at a farmers’ market or gourmet grocer. If I see a forgotten heirloom berry or pear listed as an ingredient on a restaurant menu, I’m all over it.
So on a crisp, sunny September morning, as I gather with a half-dozen gardeners to tour a historic orchard that boasts 277 varieties of apples, 59 varieties of pears, and dozens of even rarer specimens of pome and stone fruit, I can barely contain my excitement. All around me, brilliant fruit in reds, yellows, and greens pops from the trees. My mind reels at the unfamiliar names, listed on tiny signs next to each one—apples named Lord’s Seedling, Autumn Pearmain, Hudson’s Golden Gem, and Duchess of Oldenberg; pears called Moonglow, Jargonelle, and Clapp’s Favorite.
We are at Filoli, the beautifully preserved early 20th-century country residence and gardens in Woodside, California, and my group consists of the site’s professional horticulture staff. Filoli’s 10-acre “gentleman’s orchard” contains some 600 fruit trees, about 114 of which date to 1918, when they were planted by the original owner, prominent San Francisco entrepreneur William Bowers Bourn II. Lurline Matson Roth purchased Filoli from the Bourn estate in 1937, and donated the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1975. The orchard stood mostly untouched for about two decades, until preservation began in earnest in the 1990s. “This orchard allows us to educate people on the story of fruit before the mid-20th century, before we had easy access to fruit like we do today,” says Jim Salyards, Filoli’s head of horticulture. “There are definitely varieties in here that we haven’t identified yet.”
Our guide, Carolyn Curtis, is a volunteer docent who usually leads orchard tours for the public at this National Trust Historic Site. Today, however, is a special training tour for staff members and volunteers, and I’ve been permitted to tag along.
As we wander into the orchard, Curtis points out a Wolf River apple. “This ripens in August, and it’s enormous,” she says. “The only reason people ever grew it was to win first prize at the county fair for biggest apple.” In the next row, she grabs a bright yellow apple. “This is called a Winter Banana,” she says. “It’s a wonderful heirloom variety. It was planted pre-1975, though we don’t know when.”
Someone asks if we can taste it. Salyards pulls out a knife and cuts a few slices to pass around. “Usually, this is not a U-Pick sort of place,” Curtis says with a chuckle. “We discourage the public from picking fruit. People occasionally show up for tours with shopping bags, but that’s not what we do here.”
“It’s true,” says Salyards. “We’re trying to preserve the original landscape. It’s more about keeping the trees alive. The fruit is just a bonus.”
But Salyards can’t help but share that bonus. As we pass a Newtown Pippin tree, he grabs another apple and slices it. “This was George Washington’s favorite apple,” Curtis says. “It was a big hit in the 1780s.” Then Salyards picks a Kasseler Reinette. As we share it, our group agrees that it’s the best apple yet—crisp and bracingly tart, but with a sweet lingering finish.
A heron takes off from an apple tree, and we also notice bluebirds, butterflies, and even a pack of wild turkeys. A local beekeeper’s hive stands in a corner near the black walnut trees. Salyards points out gaps where trees have been lost. “We’ve had some really tough years with drought and disease,” he says. Fire blight, a bacterial infection that periodically destroys pear and apple trees, has hit the orchard particularly hard in years past.
Curtis leads us to a San Juan Bautista Mission pear tree, planted in 1810. “These aren’t gourmet pears,” she says. “But it’s a link to the Padres,” the Spanish missionaries who settled in California. Salyards grabs a Kieffer pear from a nearby tree. He plucks a couple of fresh figs, then two different types of persimmon, and then a rare hawthorn fruit. We share tiny bits of each.
By now, our rare-fruit tasting is clearly making Curtis a little uncomfortable. “This is more tasting than we would normally do,” she says. The public generally only gets a chance to taste the orchard’s fruit at the annual Autumn at Filoli festival, or on the occasional special tour. Two to three tons are also donated annually to a local food bank. And much of the fruit is turned into jams sold at the gift shop.
But Salyards and his staff can be forgiven for their enthusiasm. After all, they are the ones who prune in January, fight disease and pests, thin the fruit in the spring, battle varmints such as gophers and deer, and harvest the fruit over eight weeks in late summer and fall. “Orchards are a ton of work. You can spend endless time in there,” he says. “When orchards are in fruit they’re very exciting. But for the rest of the year, they’re not as sexy as flowers or the rest of the gardens.”
Much like historic buildings, historic orchards provide a vital link to the past. Nationwide, a movement toward preserving orchards is gaining momentum. The Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, for instance, began the groundwork for its Historic Orchard Initiative in the early 1990s. After learning of the National Park Service’s limited capacity to care for the many fruit trees at its sites, the center began working with the park service in orchards at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania and Morristown National Historical Park in New Jersey.
California, with its rich fruit-growing history, is at the forefront of orchard preservation. Almost a decade ago, the California Department of Parks and Recreation created a Historic Orchard Assessment program. Surveys showed that at least 44 of its state parks had historic fruit and nut trees, and the state now offers expert orchard advice, training, treatment, and management.
At Fort Ross State Historic Park near Jenner, California, a handful of fruit trees dates to 1820, when the fort was occupied by Russian settlers. “Those trees are the only truly, 100-percent-Russian artifacts,” says Susan Rudy, the volunteer orchard manager at Fort Ross. “The buildings have been renovated or moved. But up in the orchard, the trees are still there.”
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Fruit trees live a long, long time, so when an orchard is preserved, often rare or heirloom or even thought-to-be-extinct varieties are saved. Fort Ross has three subtropical capulin cherry trees that the Russian settlers acquired from the Santa Cruz Mission in 1820. “They flower and fruit every year. When trees have been hanging around that long, they tend to have some tenacity,” Rudy says. “They’re a living resource. But that’s also a frightening idea, because they have an end date.”
Historic orchards give us not only a sense of how people farmed and worked and lived in the past; they also represent a record of historical tastes. Because fruit has always provided us with natural access to sweetness, we may even get a sense of a former era’s small pleasures. “Sugar was super expensive. So if you wanted something sweet, you had to be growing and preserving fruit to add some excitement to your diet,” says Salyards.
Many of the diverse fruit varieties in historic orchards have largely disappeared. As the modern farm-to-supermarket system was standardized, growers focused on varieties that were easier to cultivate and sturdier to ship. In California and elsewhere, rising land prices also led to the sale of orchards to developers.
At the center of sprawling San Jose, California, in the city’s Guadalupe River Park & Gardens, lives a 3.3-acre orchard with 200 fruit trees. This orchard commemorates what the Santa Clara Valley was before the tech industry took over and christened it Silicon Valley.
Leslee Hamilton, Guadalupe River Park Conservancy’s executive director, can remember growing up near San Jose, amid miles of fruit blossoms. She recalls sneaking into neighbors’ orchards to eat an apricot and then, when she was older, working at a local canning company, processing cherries for fruit cocktail.
Housing developments replaced a lot of the orchards in the area, and then the tech boom happened. “The rise of high tech put pressure on land values,” Hamilton says. “This is a living laboratory. This is about preserving fruit varieties that put Santa Clara Valley on the map.” Among the fruit produced by the orchard’s trees are Blenheim and Moorpark apricots, Silver Logan peaches, Italian plums, cherries, and pomegranates.
But Hamilton admits that Guadalupe River Park & Gardens’ orchard faces a number of stresses. The park and orchard are across the street from the busy San Jose MarketCenter, filled with big-box retailers such as Target, Office Depot, and PetSmart. Hamilton says that in the past, some in the city have suggested the best use of the park and orchard would be bulldozing it and putting in a parking lot.
Beyond that, California’s recent five-year drought hurt the trees. Packs of squirrels treat them like a fruit buffet. And even though posted city signs prohibit removing fruit from the orchard without permission, there is still a good deal of theft. Last year, when volunteers showed up to harvest the cherry trees and donate the fruit to a local food bank, they found that the entire crop had been picked clean, stolen. “It’s maddening,” says Hamilton. “The city hasn’t had a whole lot of resources to help.”
Before I leave San Jose, I drive over to J&P Farm, an orchard and farm market tucked away in a suburban neighborhood among contemporary homes.
“Welcome to the last orchard in San Jose,” reads the chalkboard. “Help yourself and please put money in the slot.” Tables hold Casselman plums, fresh figs, Muscat of Alexandria grapes, Chinese dates, and, according to the handwritten sign, the “Best Apples You Ever Ate.”
An older man busies himself behind the market. I start chatting with him, and he tells me that this is indeed the last working orchard in San Jose. “It’s sad,” he says. “San Jose used to be the fruit capital of the world.”
While keeping fruit trees alive in urban areas is certainly difficult, it’s also a challenge in more rural regions. Jack London State Historic Park, in the Sonoma County village of Glen Ellen, California, acquired 26 acres of a century-old orchard in 2002. As Eric Metz, director of operations for the park, and Breck Parkman, a now-retired senior archaeologist with the state’s Department of Parks and Recreation, drive me up to the orchard on a winding road, we pass a sign that warns visitors about mountain lions. I raise my eyebrow. “Yep, we have mountain lions,” Parkman says. “And lots of rattlesnakes, too.”
At about 1,000 feet above sea level, we get out of the truck and trek into the orchard. It’s hard at first to discern overgrown plum, apricot, cherry, apple, pear, and quince trees from the rest of the wild area. “Look at all that coyote scat,” Parkman says. “The coyote definitely eat the fruit.” Then he points out a wood rat’s nest. “For wood rats, this orchard is a gourmet delicatessen,” he says.
The orchard’s heyday had been in the 1930s and ’40s, when it was operated by what is now called the Sonoma Developmental Center, a historic facility for people with developmental disabilities. The center ran a cannery, and records from 1953 show that it sold 15,000 pounds of apples that year. But by the late 1960s, the cannery and orchard had ceased operation. “This orchard was untouched for decades,” says Metz. “Some of these trees have survived 50 years without being watered. It’s becoming a natural state.”
In 2007, the national and state park services published an orchard assessment, and the arduous work of reclaiming and restoring the orchard began in earnest. But funding has been a challenge. Facing severe budget cuts in 2012, the state nearly closed Jack London State Historic Park, which could have meant the demise of the orchard. “Orchards are living things. They require a lot of care,” Parkman says.
“We’re trying to protect the cultural and historic landscape,” Metz adds. “We’re not focusing right now on pruning the trees in a way that promotes fruit growth, but rather to protect the 100-year-old tree trunks.” In the future, he hopes to re-plant using cuttings and rootstock from the remaining historic trees. “This would preserve the genetic stock of the trees in the orchard and re-establish the historic look of the orchard in areas where trees have died off and disappeared.”
While the work of preserving historic orchards is full of challenges, the payoff can be seen on a brilliant autumn morning like the day of my tour at Filoli. With the trees in fruit, even the professional horticulture staff is reduced to a childlike state amid all the fanciful, heirloom varieties.
Curtis allows my group to wander the estate’s collection of native grapevines, where 128 varieties of North American table grapes grow—not just the well-known Concord and Catawba, but obscure names such as Cascade, Goff, Kendaia, Magliasina, Lucile, Brant, Ruby, Clinton, Gaertner, Valhallah, and Delicatessen. “I’ll give you all five minutes to try anything you want,” she tells us, and everyone scurries through the grapevines, giggling.
After that, we wander the peach trees and the black walnut trees. Finally, we come upon a very odd tree that Curtis identifies as medlar—the mythical fruit that pops up in literary works ranging from Cervantes’ Don Quixote to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. To Curtis’ relief, we can’t eat anything from this tree, because medlar needs to be bletted, or ripened and softened. Several members of the group—myself in particular—are crestfallen.
Still, Curtis tells us about the flavor of this historic fruit with an unbridled glee. “The taste is unlike anything else,” she says. “The closest I can say is that it tastes like applesauce with cinnamon. And some people say it tastes like a fruitcake.” She smiles at us, and then gives us perhaps the best reason of all for preserving orchards. “You just don’t taste a flavor like this,” she says. “Unless you grow it.”
Jason Wilson is the author of Godforsaken Grapes, which will be published by Abrams Books early next year. His previous story for Preservation, in the Spring 2017 issue, was about dairy farms in Vermont.