It was 1871 when a “testy little Frenchman” named Felix Gillet first opened his Barren Hill Nursery to the public on 16 acres of logged property at the top of Nevada Street.
During Gillet’s lifetime, he imported and bred thousands of varieties of old world fruit and nuts from as many as 40 countries. Much of California’s successes in perennial crop agriculture can be traced back to the Nevada City nurseryman and the superior foods he introduced, yet rarely does he get any credit.
Though his name has nearly slipped from memory in modern times, one organic farmer from the San Juan Ridge is working to preserve his legacy by propagating old heirloom trees dating back to the Gold Rush days.
“Gillet was a plant maniac and was the French connection… He was the plants man of the day in our area,” said Amigo Cantisano of Heaven and Earth Farm, an agriculture consultant and founder of the Ecological Farming Conference.
Cantisano started the Felix Gillet Institute seven years ago with a dedication to identify, preserve and propagate perennial foods from the Sierra.
“We want to get him the notoriety he deserves,” Cantisano said.
Many of the varieties of plants Gillet introduced to California can still be found growing and producing food throughout the Sierra Nevada foothills.
So far, organizers of the nonprofit group have gleaned and mapped fruit, nuts and berries from old homesteads and mining camps in six gold country counties including: Nevada, Placer, Yuba, El Dorado, Sierra and Calaveras. They have even identified trees growing in the Sutter Buttes.
Cantisano hopes more people will come forward with information about old trees so he can prevent hungry bears and snowdrifts from breaking limbs. He also wants to educate landowners with chainsaws to avoid cutting down important food links to the past.
A 2013 catalogue is now available from the Felix Gillet Institute offering nursery stock from century old organically cared for apple, cherry, fig, pear and quince heirloom trees.
Customers can buy varieties like, “Swaar,” an American bred apple produced by Dutch settlers on the Hudson in New York and introduced to California by Gillet in 1884. Folks can plant history in their garden with “Reinette Pippin,” a famous French heirloom of the 1770s; the rootstock came from a 110-year old specimen discovered at the Camptonville home of Lester Pelton, founder of the Pelton wheel.
When in season, flavorful apples, persimmons, chestnuts and more are sold wholesale and at local farmers markets.
“It’s a taste of the past. It’s a direct link to Gillet and early miners,” Cantisano said.
The work is slowly gaining recognition among fellow plant enthusiasts.
Last September, Cantisano spoke in Santa Rosa about his heirloom fruit project during a program of the California Rare Fruit Growers held in conjunction with the National Heirloom Exposition.
He has been noted on the young farmers blog, Greenhorns and interviewed by the organizers of the National Bioneers Conference.
“The work that Amigo Bob is doing with the Felix Gillette Institute is both important and beautiful,” said Arty Mangan, director of the Bioneers Restorative Food Systems Program.
“Important because Bob’s rediscovery of Gillette’s botanical treasure of diverse cultivars has saved them from being lost for all time. We would have also lost the evolutionary genetic intelligence that allows those cultivars to thrive and produce fruit in varying conditions.
Stewarding the renaissance of Gillette’s nursery is beautiful because we would have also lost the pleasure of enjoying the unique flavors of those heritage fruits and nuts,” Mangan said.
It all started in the 1970s, when Cantisano first stumbled upon an old abandoned homestead eight miles down a dirt road at 4,000 feet elevation. The property, known as “Buck’s Ranch,” was loaded with fruit and nut trees.
Owned by the Buck brothers in the 1870s, the orchards were located a stone’s throw away from a Gold Rush era mining encampment.
“Every mining community around here had to feed themselves … They definitely grew a lot more than they could eat. This is true everywhere you go. Where you find mining camps there’s remnants of agriculture,” said Cantisano.
For 40 years, discovering and harvesting fruit from trees as old as 145 years has served as one of Cantisano favorite past times. His group hopes to GPS their finds this year.
“We’ve identified hundreds and hundreds of plants and we’re still finding new ones,” he said.
The old plants have grown wild. No one has tended, pruned, fertilized or irrigated the trees for years. Over time, they have become well established, disease resistant and hardy to the coldest winters and the hottest summers.
“They’ve completely acclimated. They survive here,” Cantisano said.
Cantisano, founding and previous owner of Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, first heard about Felix Gillet from a customer.
Curious to learn more, he eventually met the homeowners of Gillet’s original Nevada City house and began to learn of the nurseryman’s history.
To his delight, the homeowner showed him a box that had belonged to Charles E. Parsons, the nurseryman who purchased the Barren Hill Nursery in 1913. He renamed it the Felix Gillet Nursery and ran it up until the 1960s.
The box contained a “treasure trove” of Gillet’s catalogues, writings, meticulous records, harvest information and correspondence.
“There’s thousands of pages,” said Cantisano. The Felix Gillet Institute is starting the tedious process of scanning many of these historical documents onto the group’s website.
Considered an expert in his field, Gillet wrote for many horticulture publications of his day and was one of the founders of the state Board of Horticulture, now the Department of Food and Agriculture.
Reading through the records, Cantisano learned that Gillet had introduced a staggering number of California’s most significant perennial food crops, some of the best Europe had to offer. At least one variety of walnut was named in his honor.
“He brought in everything we eat and I’m not exaggerating,” Cantisano said.
Cantisano says Gillet is the father of the following California crops: almonds, walnuts, filberts, chestnuts, prunes, pears, cherries, wine grapes, table grapes, raisin grapes, persimmons and strawberries.
He also had his hands in: Peaches, nectarines, apricots, blackberries, raspberries and pecans.
“This is the guy that brought the plants that got agriculture going. That’s what made California famous,” Cantisano said.
Felix Gillet died at age 72 in 1908. On Jan. 27, 2008, Nevada City marked the centennial of his death by proclaiming Felix Gillet Day.
To learn more and to view a 2013 nursery catalogue visit: http://felixgillet.org/.
To contact Amigo Cantisano call 292-3619 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact freelance reporter Laura Brown at email@example.com or 530-401-4877.