By Joshua Burman Thayer, based on interviews with John Valenzuela | Illustrations by Joshua Burman Thayer
As a Bay Area horticulturalist devoted to encouraging home food production, I often find myself thinking about the Eastern Mediterranean. It’s the region where many of the important food crops we grow in Northern California originated.
A Matter of Mountains and Latitude
The Mediterranean Basin and Middle East regions sit at around the same 30–39° north latitude as California, and many parts have similarly mountainous topographies and a comparable summer-dry/winter-wet climate. Episodic moisture conditions in the upland valleys and flood plains of the Middle East’s Caucasus, Taurus, Zagros, and Elburz mountains allowed many of the wild grains, fruits, and nuts we know today to evolve, and foraging in these spots was crucial to ancient people. It’s easy to picture the Garden of Eden in one or many of these fertile upland riparian areas.
Oasis as Original Food Forest
A Farsi term, “bustan” (an agricultural garden or a place of smell), refers to gardens where fruits, herbs, and vegetables are raised in a cohabitational symbiosis. When thinking about the Middle East, many people visualize the desert oasis: a place where underground water rises to the surface and supports an ecosystem with the date palm as the dominant species. The dense foliage at the tops of tall palm trees creates shade in pockets below where more fragile species can survive. Early desert nomads gathered in such spots to rest, water their livestock, forage for dates, and consume stored foods they carried along in their packs from those upland regions mentioned earlier. Discarded seeds from those foods fell and sprouted, thus diversifying the bustan garden into a thriving, multi-storied food forest. Ideas for propagating, fostering, and protecting crops emerged, as did the notion of irrigation to extend the growing area. Some see this trend as the beginning of modern agriculture and the cultivation and co-evolution of many domesticated plants. Traders plying the network of routes along the Silk Road, which connected East Asia with the Mediterranean Sea, ensured that seeds, cuttings, and ideas for cultivation spread to newly emerging centers of civilization.
When Spanish friars came to establish their missions in Alta California in the 18th century, among the supplies they carried on their journeys were cuttings of quite a few Mediterranean and Middle Eastern “Bible plants” (a term they used for items named in scripture). These plants, which evolved in the dry Middle East, were known for their abilities to propagate readily and grow in semi-arid regions. Some turned out to be ruggedly tolerant of California’s dry-summer/wet-winter climate.
The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera), which appears in the Song of Solomon, is understood to have originated in the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent. Widespread archaeological evidence dates its cultivation back into the 6th millennium BCE.
Also sung of in the Song of Solomon, the pomegranate (Punica granatum) had its origin in the uplands of the Caucasus Mountains and is known to have been in cultivation in Israel and Egypt at least 7,000 years ago. It’s a hearty mid-story plant from the myrtle order with over 500 cultivars.
Fig (Ficus carica) comes from Caucasus Mountains uplands and lowlands and is known to have been in cultivation for over 4,000 years in Turkey. Propagated from cuttings, it grows to become a dense mid-size tree, which you can easily prune to any size or shape that fits into your landscaping.
That apple (Malus domestica) Eve handed to Adam in the Garden of Eden originated in the mountains of Central Asia. It’s a mid-story plant with over 7,500 known cultivars. You’ll have a long season of fruit if you plant an early season apple like Gravenstein, a mid-season variety like Golden Delicious, a late-season option like Newtown Pippin, and a crab apple to serve as a pollinator attractor. You’ll be getting these as grafted nursery stock.
An overstory tree from North Africa, carob (Ceratonia siliqua) provides protein and is a nutritious animal feed supplement. John Valenzuela suggests planting the Santa Fe variety, which you’ll get from nursery stock
Originating in the Caucasus Mountains uplands, the climbing vine we call grape (Vitis vinifera) was in cultivation by 6,000 BCE in Georgia. Early evidence of winemaking appears with 7,000-year-old wine jugs found in Persia. There are over 5,000 cultivated grape varieties, all propagated by cuttings. There is room for a grapevine in most any yard, since it needs nothing more than a fence it can climb on. If you want quick growth and are content with tiny grapes, you might try the California native grape (Vitis californica).
Aka “Chinese Date,” the jujube (Ziziphus jujuba) comes from Western Asia. It was domesticated in South Asia by around 9,000 BCE, and has been in cultivation in China for over 4,000 years. There are more than 400 cultivars, which are propagated from cuttings. It’s well known to be productive in dry conditions.
The olive (Olea europea) is a very long lived small- to mid-size tree that originated in Greece and Asia Minor around 20–40 million years ago. Since ancient times, the fruit of the olive tree has provided humanity with an invaluable oil for food, light, and skin care, as well as protein from its fruit. Propagated from cuttings, it has been in cultivation for over 7,000 years. It’s a popular landscape plant around the Bay Area due to its beauty, but there’s no reason not to try planting trees for food production. If you do, you’ll want to plant at least two different cultivars to foster pollination, for instance, three mission and one Manzanillo. Then you’ll want to learn how to cure the olives or press them for oil.
The Food Forest Understory
If you are looking for “Bible plant” candidates to add to the understory of your East Bay food forest, good choices include lentils (Lens esculenta), cucumber (Cucumis sativus), coriander (Coriandrum sativum), marjorum (Origanum majorana), and garlic (Allium sativum). Among the benefits to planting these are that you’ll be building and sheltering your soil, preventing rodents, enjoying rich aromas and winter blossoms, and putting more homegrown food on your table.
Resting in the Shade of the Mulberry Tree
Silk was but one of the items carried along the network of trade routes between China and Europe from the 2nd century BCE well into modern times. Foods, plants, livestock, tools, artwork, precious stones and metals, language, technology, culture, philosophy, science, and even diseases like Bubonic Plague went back and forth along these routes. But regardless of what a traveler was carrying, he was likely to rest in the shade of a mulberry tree, eat its fruits, and feed its leaves to his livestock.
The white mulberry (Morus alba), like the worm that eats its leaves and spins a cocoon of silk, is native to Central China and has been in cultivation there for over 4,000 years. It grows vigorously to 30–60 feet tall, but can be managed to 12–15 feet tall, which is quite useful if you want to interplant it as part of your food forest design. John Valenzuela prefers growing Morus nigra (Noir of Spain and Black Beauty are his favorite varieties), saying it’s “more enjoyable to eat.” He also recommends Morus alba Paradise or Hunza, which he likes for their “great names.”
Permaculturist John Valenzuela, a North Bay resident much admired for his knowledge of organic orcharding, food forests, rare fruit, home gardening, traditional agriculture, plant propagation, and ethnobotany, was interviewed for this article. Visit his website at cornucopiafoodforest.wordpress.com.
California Rare Fruit Growers is an organization beloved by permaculturists, and their website is full of good reading. Don’t miss the orchard fruit facts wiki to learn more about plants discussed in this story. crfg.org
To learn more about how your garden choices can help protect pollinator species, visit xerces.org
Published in 1952, Harold and Alma Moldeneke’s Plants of the Bible is still widely available. Two illustrations on this page are from this book.
Also look for J. Russel Smith’s Tree Crops, A Permanent Agriculture published in 1941.
Joshua Burman Thayer is a permaculture designer and educator. A regular contributor to Edible East Bay and Mother Earth News, he also offers valuable gardening advice monthly in our e-newsletter, East Bay Appetizer, which you can subscribe to here. Learn more about Joshua’s work at nativesungardens.com, and follow him on Twitter @nativesungarden.