Father of perennial agriculture, Nevada County’s Felix Gillet
February 27, 2014
At the monthly meeting of the Chicago Park Garden Club, I recently attended a lecture given by Amigo Bob Cantisano, founder of the Felix Gillet Institute. Touched by Bob's passion for his project, I was moved to write about its vital importance in our community and beyond.
In the neighborhood of Felix Gillet's nursery in Nevada City, old chestnut trees are one strong reminder of this man's influence. Nursery Street honors the historical significance for Nevada City.
Gillet's nursery efforts began in 1871. In the years that followed he collected, bred and introduced hundreds of cultivars of fruits that became the basis for Caliifornia agriculture. The list is impressive: almonds, walnuts, filberts, chestnuts, cherries, apples, pears, figs, grapes, plums, prunes, apricots, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, and even roses.
When I visited the site of Gillet's home several years ago, I had the same feeling of awe I do when I see fruit trees surviving on old homesteads. And I knew there was a connection. From the old nursery sign in the basement to the unusual plants in the vicinity, the echo of Gillet's voice in horticulture was still present.
Now that voice is joined by Amigo Bob's with the help of Adam Nuber and Jennifer Bliss. Through their amazing efforts, the Felix Gillet Institute is a resource for discovery, development, and education.
Not only are precious photographs and details of Gillet's life history carefully saved, Felix Gillet's plants are being rediscovered. Heirloom fruits are being reintroduced. Young students will learn horticultural skills from the Institute's team.
This is not a simple project. In many situations, fruit trees long abandoned may be hidden in Ponderosa pines or even overgrown with Himalayan blackberries. Some are on privately owned rural acreage, others may be on old mining sites. All are survivors, having weathered the vagaries of weather and climate for decades.
Retrieving scion wood from each discovered survivor is critical. This is the basis of propagation. While it may entail the physical effort of fighting brambles, and even some climbing, this is only the first step. Amigo Bob and his team have spent years identifying the cultivars. Historical notes are helpful in the research efforts, but do not always provide the answers.
Without the Felix Gillet Institute, the surviving trees in the Sierras might eventually be lost. While many of Gillet's introductions provided the genetics for further breeding and the basis for some of today's popular cultivars, the originals are heirlooms, each with a story of its own.
For a fruit tree to survive more than a century without human attention is extraordinary. Withstanding periods of drought, intense summer heat, and record winter storms are some of the natural challenges. Competition for light and nutrients in an evolving forest introduces another set of challenges. Soil may be so depleted that the weaker fruit trees do not live. Survival of the fittest.
It is the genetic strength of the survivors that writes the next chapter of the Felix Gillet Nursery, thanks to Bob Cantisano and his team's devoted efforts. The Institute (www.felixgillet.org) is offering bareroot trees for sale January through March. Buy locally grown heirloom fruits. If you are not planting this season, donations are welcomed. This team of horticulturalists depends on your support.
Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. 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. For more information and details of upcoming classes, visit http://www.carolynsingergardens.com.