On a spiral with the California Rare Fruit Growers
Illustrations by Elizabeth Hubbell
“The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited, or limited only by the information and imagination of the designer.”
Unaided by scientists, the universe has bequeathed upon humans a tremendous diversity of fruits, many more than most of us living in these few square miles of East Bay foodie heaven even realize. Here—with our colorful legions of food activists, artists, and educators; our resounding demand for pure, genetically honest food; and our thriving markets, farms, experimental growers, and behemoth grocery stores—we have a surprisingly narrow menu to choose from. We may be excited about the heirloom fruits and vegetables emerging each season, but most of us don’t realize there are more gifts out there waiting to be picked. I include myself in this “we,” but after taking the long and winding journey that is this article, I have a little better idea.
Walking Encyclopedias of Fruit
If a California rare-fruit grower has a close animal relative, it would be the bee. Each of the growers I’ve talked to is as busy as a bee, and as a group, they seem to buzz around in community, exclaiming over ideas, sharing resources, tasting fruit, saving seeds, propagating, and having a grand old time, all at high speed. This impression was reinforced in September when I saw them in action at their annual Festival of Fruit, held in conjunction with the 2nd National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa. Then, and in the course of my interviews, I heard tangents spiral into tangents—all germane, all interconnected—and it became clear that this information doesn’t walk a straight line. Maybe it’s all the sugar!
Rare fruit is a revelatory topic. Beyond the liveliness and diversity these nutrient-laden superfoods bring to our tables, they’re a jumping-off point for a whole host of subjects: world cultures and the history of civilization, agroecology and ethnobotany, horticulture and homesteading, farming and global trade, and even political economy. Frankly, it’s a little mind-blowing. Or as John Valenzuela, chairperson of the California Rare Fruit Growers’ (CRFG) Golden Gate Chapter says, “There is a lot going on in those fruit-filled minds!”
Founded in 1968, the CRFG have a mandate to work in the public interest. Their international membership of 3,000 includes botanical gardens and arboretums, university and government researchers, master gardeners and horticulturalists, commercial growers, backyard orchardists, and many, many hobbyists. According to CRFG.org, “Members share information; exchange seeds, plants and scion wood; give garden tours; exhibit displays and staff information booths at fairs and shows; hold plant sales; and give classes on propagation, pruning, and grafting for members.”
In the East Bay, meetings are held in odd-numbered months on the second Saturday of the month. They typically feature speakers who are experts in rare-fruit culture, as well as tastings, raffles of unusual plants, sharing of information, and socializing. Meetings and activities are open to the public. The chapter’s main annual event is its scion exchange in January, where cuttings from fruit trees, seeds, tubers, and rootstock are available, along with grafting instruction and expert advice on selecting, planting and growing.
“We are involved with education,” says Valenzuela. “That’s our number one thing. We make allies wherever we can. I like to make bridges, and I like to go from the organic hippie folks and then bridge with government researchers. We network with public orchards and botanic gardens, research institutions and government collections like the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Davis. We contribute to collections all over the area, and share genetic material through our annual scion exchanges.”
From Eclectic Backyard Orchard to a Store or Restaurant Near You
One might say that Amigo Bob Cantisano has a perspective on fruit. This member of the CRFG Sacramento Chapter and longtime friend and associate of many in the Golden Gate Chapter, is the principal of Organic Ag Advisors, for which he travels to farms throughout the Americas. Perhaps most importantly, he’s an organic farming pioneer. Cantisano founded the Eco-Farm Conference (Eco-Farm.org) back in 1980 and has launched successful businesses, such as Peaceful Valley Farm Supply (groworganic.com). His latest project is the Felix Gillet Institute, named for the man who has been described as “the father of perennial agriculture in the West.” (Gillet ran one of the first nurseries in the American West—located in Nevada City—and introduced most of the nuts and fruits that are commonly grown in the United States today.)
Amigo says that the CRFG’s efforts extend beyond simply having fun in the backyard sharing fruit with neighbors (which is a fine thing, to be sure). “The CRFG holds a very important place in California agriculture. By finding, propagating and promoting rare varieties and species, they pioneer the development of food crops for other gardeners and eventually for all of agriculture. What is rare and unusual today may be common and vital in the future.”
Amigo explains that it can take decades, but someday, an unusual fruit with its certain je ne sais quoi may show up on the menu at, say, Chez Panisse, Greens, or Oliveto, produced by a small organic farm like Knoll or Full Belly. If that fruit becomes pervasive at the markets, larger growers may become interested in bringing that fruit into mainstream production. Clementine and Mandarin tangerines, for example, were not long ago considered rare fruits. And back in 1984, when John Valenzuela started working with the Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org), heirloom tomatoes were virtually unknown to the American public. Now they are available at a grocery chain near you.
Those Fruity People
A spirit of cross-cultural inclusivity is at the heart of the rare-fruit community. This is by design. The website states: “Although oriented toward the environmentally sound culture of any and all edible plants in the home landscape, CRFG is focused on species not native to nor grown commercially in any given area.”
In late August, Idell Weydemeyer invited me over to taste fruit at her three-quarter-acre El Sobrante homestead, Gopher Gulch Gardens. Although 75 percent of the garden is native plants, she manages to grow edibles from all over the world, with fruits and blooms and foliage of many textures, types, and colors. She lives here with husband, David (“We are still friends”) of nearly 40 years, son Clark (an avid fermenter), and daughter-in-law Cristi, who is first-generation Philipino American. Clark and Christi have produced two beautiful granddaughters, Daveri, 2, and infant Danica. Their comfortable and welcoming home is decorated with colorful folk art from around the world.
Weydemeyer is one of those fruity people. She has held several leadership roles on the national and chapter boards, has organized four Festivals of Fruit, organized many, many scion exchanges, and for years has taught hands-on grafting classes for classroom groups ranging from 6th graders to the Master Gardeners of Contra Costa County, of which she is one.
Weydemeyer explains, “I grew up in Montana and enjoyed seeing native plants and eating wild berries and anything we could grow. At 3,000 feet in the Rockies, that meant apples, crabapples, strawberries, raspberries, and rhubarb. When I came to California and saw what could be grown in a milder climate, I went crazy. I grew all kinds of things.”
Weydemeyer had been in the area for about 15 years when she chanced upon the CRFG Golden Gate Chapter. “I saw a little notice about a meeting discussing growing unusual fruit, so I went and have been going to CRFG ever since.” That meeting, on September 12, 1987, at the South Berkeley Public Library, just happened to be when founder Katherine Pyle and her friend John Archer held their initial gathering. Over time, Weydemeyer has developed her “higgledy-piggledy” garden such that she and her family might eat fresh fruit every day. And they do.
Permaculture and “Food Forests”
Rare fruits may be the fruit of a different growing philosophy entirely.
Golden Gate Chapter chairperson John Valenzuela is a self-described “fruit explorer,” who in his 20s went looking for fruit in the mountains of southern Mexico and Guatemala. Now a Permaculture instructor, he has taught extensively in California, Hawaii, and, for the past 15 summers, in Washington State at the Bullock Brother’s Permaculture Homestead on Orcas Island (permacultureportal.com). Since CRFG is an open, inclusive organization that embraces diversity of opinion as well as fruits, it does not espouse a particular growing philosophy. However, Valenzuela is among many members interested in “food forests,” a term used in Permaculture, which is an integrated design system that is based on a set of ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share.
Food forests are designed so that no one ever goes hungry. If one crop fails, there’s always something else to eat. It’s a natural fit with the lineage of many rare fruits, since they evolved in indigenous growing schemes, like the Mesoamerican milpa or the “managed” jungles of the Amazon, where many species of edible plants grow and intermingle in human/animal/plant communities. These biologically robust agroecosystems are as diverse by design as the cultures they come from.
A food forest’s multi-layered diversified style of growing is the opposite of today’s giant monoculture operations. It is efficient for home gardeners who want to pack a lot into a small yard. In a food forest, there’s food at your feet (e.g., strawberries, pumpkins, chayotes, basil), food at your belly button (e.g., peppers, eggplant, huckleberries, corn), and as high as you can stretch up on your tiptoes (e.g., tree fruits like apples and kumquats, sapotes and jujubes). Without driving to the grocery store, you can walk outside and find most of what is needed for dinner, from salad greens to all that goes into the pot for tomato sauce. Then you can pick dessert.
In essence, food forests maximize abundance. “Permaculture idealizes perennial crops and food forestry, and fruits are central and foundational to that,” says Anders Vidstrand, who tends about an acre of fruit crops at Merritt College’s Landscape Horticulture Department, where he teaches Edible Landscaping and serves as science technician. He also grows at the 55th Street Community Garden in North Oakland, a small lot with 25 gardeners each with his or her own plot, and a communal fruit orchard. He notes that “most fruits come from perennial plants, which can produce over and over again for many years, whereas most vegetables and staples (like grains) are from annuals.” Ultimately, he says, “Growing fruits in a food forest allows you to embrace a whole new array of species and varieties.”
Efficient use of resources is basic to the food forest model. Valenzuela explains the Permaculture strategy in which nutrient-rich gray water—a “low hanging fruit” way to save water—is used to irrigate fruit trees. “We’re already wasting so much water,” he says. “Let’s recycle gray water back into the landscape into mulch basins around fruit trees, and let’s combine that with rainwater catchment!” Then he mentions another favorite Permie way to “fertilize” fruit trees: “Ducks and chickens should have their way with the downed fruit!” he laughs.
Ashok Tambwekar, recording secretary for CRFG’s national board of directors, has been growing fruit on his family’s Concord homestead since his youth. An avid composter, he hates to see any good organic material going to the waste stream and prefers a closed-loop system where waste turns to compost turns to food. He hopes to see alliances between the CRFG and the Permaculture and sustainable-agriculture communities.
Young Orchardist, Go Forth!
There is a push in the organic farming community to recruit young people—known as “greenhorns”—to farming. The greenhorn movement (thegreenhorns.net) has an agenda to carve out space in the economy for career paths in organics. According to Amigo Bob Cantisano, this is especially viable today when this market sector is growing approximately 15 percent annually.
Recalling his own early influences, Valenzuela says he was introduced in his 20s to Seed Savers by a friend in his community of San Diego who was an edible landscaper. “We grew heirloom tomatoes that nobody had, enjoying them ourselves, and sold them to the local Ocean Beach Peoples Food Store where I worked. Unlike now, where organic heirloom tomatoes are available at every Safeway store.” (Incidentally, Ocean Beach was established in the heyday of the cooperative grocery movement, and is one of the stores that is still going strong. ¡Vencera!)
Vidstrand, 29, had his “entry point” into rare-fruit growing about three years ago, when he began going to the Golden Gate Chapter’s annual scion exchanges. He encourages his peers to join the organization and to “grow fruit when you are young so you can eat what you plant for a longer portion of your life!”
Can’t decide what to plant first?
Says Valenzuela, “We live in a diverse community. Go to an Asian market. Go to a Latin market. Taste things and see what you like. There are so many opportunities for us to learn from each other. Some of the old folks have so much wisdom. Get to know your neighborhood, check out the trees, see what’s successful, watch their cycles, ask people how they eat it, learn what’s going on already, go to tastings, come to a meeting.”
Every weekend in January, CRFG chapters around the Bay Area (and beyond) hold fruit wood scion exchanges. The Golden Gate Chapter’s 2013 scion exchange is scheduled for January 19, noon–3pm, tentatively to be held at the Ed Roberts Center, 3075 Adeline Street in Berkeley, across from Ashby BART. Confirm this venue by checking the chapter’s scion exchange webpage at crfg.org/chapters/golden_gate/scionex.htm For more information on the organization, as well as updates on chapter meetings and events, visit crfg.org.
A small, deciduous, carefree ornamental tree with a remarkable 400-plus cultivars, jujube has been grown in China for at least 4,000 years and may have been domesticated in South Asia by 9000 BCE. “Jujubes taste great,” says Idell Weydemeyer, who grows the Li variety. “If they are slightly greenish, they taste like a crispy slightly sweet apple,” she says, “and when very ripe—brown and wrinkled—they taste like a date with some apple thrown in.” The date- to plum-size fruits have thin edible skin and sweet, whitish flesh. They can be candied, pickled, juiced, made into tea or vinegar, and are important in Chinese medicine and food. Ashok Tambwekar has grown them in full sun in Concord for years. For eating fresh, he recommends Sugar Cane, Honey Jar, and Chico varieties. He appreciates that jujubes can be harvested over many weeks without spoiling.
A perfectly ripe cherimoya is an ambrosia of tropical flavors like banana, coconut, and mango, and sometimes pineapple, papaya, strawberry, or apricot. Anders Vidstrand, who has eaten his share of Oakland grown, says, “I would never use cherimoya in a recipe, because it is so delicious by itself.” It is also a beautiful landscape plant, and can do well in our cool, foggy zones if it just has the right sunny spot. However, according to Katherine Pyle, we lack cherimoya’s natural pollinators, so she suggests the “Fino de Jete” variety, since it is more likely to set fruit without hand-pollination, but “Dr. White” is her favorite.
This vigorous and attractive 40- to 50-foot semi-deciduous-to-evergreen tree is indigenous to Mesoamerica, but it does well here. It has fragrant berries about ¾-inch round that look more or less like cherries, with smooth skin that’s red to nearly black. They are sweet and juicy, with a slightly acidic or bitter taste. Not everybody likes them, but the capulin has its fans, among them Anders Vidstrand (introduced on next page), who uses the fruit in jams and pies. In Central America they are a filler for special tamales. They can be made into a syrup used to treat respiratory problems or fermented into an alcoholic drink. Laments Idell Wedemeyer, “Ah well! Capulins just are not appreciated here. But really ripe ones are good.”
This smaller cousin of the blueberry is delicious, but hard to come by, and can fetch $20-60 per gallon. They were an important food source for Native Americans, who might travel many miles in late summer through fall to forage them. With fragrant pinkish-to-white flowers and shiny green foliage, they are a lovely addition to native gardens. To see them in nature, consider a visit to Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve in the hills above Orinda and Oakland, where they live among madrone, live oak, manzanita, California bay, chinquapin, snowberry, thimbleberry, and Western swordfern. But they are evasive and you may not see them at all! And beware another associate, poison oak!
Vasconcellea x heilbornii, syn. Carica pentagona
Native to Ecuador, this cold-hardy member of the papaya family grows and bears well here. The yellow fruit has an attractive pentagonal shape and smooth, edible skin, but it doesn’t look like a papaya, and it’s flavor is more often compared more to kiwi, pineapple, or strawberry. Some find it bland, but Valenzuela is a fan as is Vidstrand, who says, “I am a lover of the Babaco, and it came to me after I used to not like it. The key is that the fruit should be fully ripe (nice and yellow), then juiced! As a juice it is fantastic, somewhat like Snapple.” One small fruit can produce a lot of juice.
The Subelle variety of white sapote is easy-to-grow and popular. Native to Mesoamerica, it is an attractive 16- to 50-foot evergreen tree with variable but often peach-size fruits and a long fruiting season. With a custard-like texture, it is very sweet, reminiscent of peach or banana, but the skin and seeds are inedible. White sapotes are successful wherever oranges can be grown.
Tree Tomato or Tamarillo
This relative of the tomato—native to the Andes—is a fun perennial landscape plant that looks like a tomato tree, with an upright trunk and fragrant flowers. It is not frost tolerant and does better in, say, Oakland than Livermore. One tree produces enough fruit for an entire family! The egg-shape fruits vary from yellow to orange (sweeter) to red and almost purple (more acidic), and are sometimes striped. They do not taste like tomatoes, and the bitter skin is never eaten. Most people cut them in half, scoop out the flesh, and then maybe sprinkle with sugar; serve with ice cream; or sprinkle with salt and pepper and then add to a sandwich. They are used in many cooked dishes. In Assam, India, tamarillos are used in chutneys.
Avocados, in Berkeley?
In Central Mexico, where the avocado is native, there are many different types, some as small as ping-pong balls and others as large as footballs, with a huge variety of tastes, textures, and uses. Avocado trees bearing edible fruits are infrequent in the East Bay, but John Valenzuela has seen some impressively huge and productive trees here and thinks we can grow more of them. Katherine Pyle has had success in her North Berkeley garden. “Some kinds are not happy with our winter cold, but others bear large crops of excellent fruit,” she says. Valenzuela recommends planting a hardy, frost-tolerant variety like Mexicola, Bacon, or Zutano. Once established, you can graft on other varieties (like the popular Hass). An avocado workshop sharing good local information on variety selection, propagation, site selection, and tree care is being planned by the Golden Gate Chapter. Visit crfg.org and click CRFG Local Chapters on the left to get the chapter details and event updates.
The feijoa, aka pineapple guava, (Feijoa sellowiana or Acca s.) can be found in many East Bay neighborhoods, where it appears as an evergreen patio tree, shrub, or hedge in drought-tolerant plantings. Its breathtaking blossoms are edible, so you might try them sprinkled on salads. The delicious fruit is reminiscent of pineapple or strawberry. Vidstrand’s favorite variety is Mammoth, but he also likes Coolidge and Nazemetz. Take note that the pulp is used in natural cosmetic products as an exfoliant.
Another fruit that goes by the name “guava” is the Chilean guava or ugni (Ugni molinae). It’s beloved by many rare-fruit growers, and Weydemeyer comments that everywhere she takes them, people love them. A productive and fragrant evergreen shrub, its berries have a creamy texture, and their smell and taste have been likened to cotton candy, vanilla, and strawberries. Weydemeyer compares them to “spicy apples with cinnamon.” Eat them fresh or use in jams, ice cream, or baked goods. This is the fruit used in the traditional Chilean liqueur, Murtado.
CapeGooseberry aka Giant Ground Cherry
This Brazilian native looks like a shiny, smooth, marble-size yellow-to-orange tomato. Closely related to the tomatillo, it grows in a similar husk, which resembles a Chinese lantern. If kept dry, this natural wrapper makes for long fruit storage. Eaten raw, the berry is sweet when ripe, with a tomatillo-like aftertaste. Says Vidstrand, “I think that cape gooseberries are among the tastiest and easiest rare fruits to grow.” Pyle agrees: “I love them, and like to sit on the ground eating them straight from the bush.” She notes that they are best when truly, fully ripe. Dried, they are sold in health food stores as Inca berries.
California wild grape
Our native grape is a useful landscape plant for covering fences, walls, and arbors, or as a ground cover, and the hybrid Roger’s Red has brilliant fall color. Many people don’t eat the grapes—which are very sweet and delicious—for reasons unknown. Well, it might be that they are smaller than most table grape varieties, and they also have seeds. Our native grape is very productive, when established, and can be used to make “native wine.” A cool fact: Most commercial wine grapes around the world have been grafted onto our California wild grape’s hardy rootstock.
Jillian Steinberger owns and operates the Garden Artisan, which brings inspired, visionary thinking to gardens that are both practical and visually splendid. She is seeking clients who are interested in California native plants, Mediterranean herbs, hedgerows, meadows, food forests, home orchards, natural interpretation, and educational gardens. Contact Jillian at jillian(at)garden-artisan(dot)com.