The Sierra foothill region enjoys a unique past. Old roads wander through rural areas rich with the history of early settlers.
Imagine the joy today as you explore an old homestead or mining site and discover heirloom fruits you have not seen or tasted before, a vital connection with this past.
There’s just one problem. With all the brambles and brush, the fruit is out of reach, slowly but surely overgrown from decades of neglect. The trees have not been lovingly tended since the late 1800s. But this heirloom Sierra foothill orchard once was a precious source of delicious and nutritious food.
Enter a devoted fruit explorer, local organic farmer Bob Cantisano (‘Amigo Bob’), with his team, Jenifer Bliss and Adam Nuber. Bob is also the founder of the nonprofit Felix Gillet Institute, preserving valuable plants first introduced by this 19th century Nevada City nurseryman.
Many of the plants discovered originated in this nursery.
“Almost 45 years ago, while rambling high in the Sierra mountains, Amigo Bob stumbled upon an abandoned 100-year-old orchard and was astonished to find apple, pear, plum and cherry trees brimming with the most delicious fruit he had ever tasted.
Over the years, he and his team of fruit explorers have discovered thousands of heirloom food-producing trees that were planted in mining camps, farms and ranches in the Sierra Nevada during the Gold Rush era of 1850 to 1900. His mission is to plant a ‘Mother orchard’ to preserve these hardy, unique and delicious heirloom trees and make them available to gardeners and farmers everywhere.”
A Mother orchard from “grandmother” trees is a local project that will bear fruit for generations to come. With community support, this “bank” of heirloom fruits will provide the genetic material for propagating fruits critically important to save.
Amigo Bob and his fellow fruit explorers have been locating plants, tasting the fruit to evaluate it, and preserving this precious heritage, one tree at a time.
And what was that first taste that inspired Amigo Bob, beginning his more than four-decade quest for the forgotten fruits of early foothill orchards? It was the discovery of the Calville Rouge d’Automne apple, a dark red, sweet fruit.
A North San Juan homestead, once a stagecoach stop, revealed a Chaberte walnut, even today a strong productive tree, its nuts with a unique hint of maple syrup.
Among the many heirloom trees in the Downieville area, Napoleon Bigareux cherry has been selected for its superior fruit.
A yellow cherry with a pink blush, this rare cherry from France introduced by Gillet in 1876, is declining. Propagating from the grandmother tree is a high priority.
In the Camptonville area, a healthy old chestnut maybe the only one of its kind in California. Our explorers believe it to be the only one in northern California, a survivor of the European favorite, Marron de Lyon.
It has been named in the “memory of a precious mother, Donna, who died on the property where this tree still lives.”
It is called the Donna de Lyon chestnut, its sweet delicious chestnuts a treat even raw.
Close to home, the Beurre Clairgeau pear was planted by Felix Gillet near his front porch, making it easy to reach the delicious fruits. Clearly a favorite!
The superior fruit and productivity of this pear are valuable to save.
Each plant tells a story of survival. Periods of drought and soil unattended since the original planting in the 1800s are only two of the challenges. Some may have endured through the blight affecting the pear industry in Peardale (near Chicago Park). Others may have survived despite tent caterpillars stripping the foliage.
The Mother orchard planned will be at Heaven and Earth Farm on the San Juan Ridge, an acre filled with more than 200 heirloom fruit and nut trees and grapes, each a survivor from the 1800s.
For more sampling of what is to be included, visit the planning website (www.barnraiser.us/projects/ eureka-help-save-heirloom-fruit-nut-trees-of-califor nia-s-gold-rush) to help save heirloom fruit and nut trees of California’s gold rush).
This is a unique community project. Take the time to get involved. Right now the funds are being raised to support the “Mother heirloom orchard,” which makes it easy for you to be part of having a choice in the food system for your local community.
Carolyn has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. A schedule of her gardening classes at Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply in Grass Valley is available at www.carolynsingergardens.com. She is the author of the award-winning “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom,” and two volumes of “Deer in My Garden” (deer-resistant plants), available locally.