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March 15-21, 2006

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Katie Wong

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Picking on Silicon Valley: Katie Wong examines a tropical guava in her backyard, which is one of the last remnants of this area's former ag utopia.

The Cult of Fruit

The rare fruits of the valley still thrive in the face of rampant development

By Stett Holbrook


EVEN IN late winter, Katie Wong's backyard looks a slice of Amazonia. There are plants everywhere. In pots. In buckets. In the ground. Plants growing on the fence. On metal racks. Inside greenhouses.

The front of her brown ranch-style home near Flickinger Park in east San Jose gives little indication of the teeming growth behind it. Lacy white flowers brave the cold weather on a dwarf apple tree. The exotic smell of an allspice tree peppers the air. Bees that colonized an overturned pot enjoy a respite from the rain and buzz about. Plastic pipes snake from the roof gutters into battered 5-gallon buckets to capture the rain.

A macadamia tree competes for sunlight with a lush banana tree. Plump, pale green sapotes, a delicious fruit native to Mexico with a custardlike texture and a flavor that's a cross betw een a peach and a banana, hang from a leafy tree. As we wend our way through the jungle of plants I half expect to get snapped at by a Venus flytrap.

"I forget what I have sometimes," says Wong, a lively woman with long black hair. "I want to have one of everything." And if it's rare or unusual, all the better. "If nobody has it I want to have it."

She's not alone in her passion for rare fruits and plants. Santa Clara County's heyday as a fruit-growing utopia may lie buried under office parks and housing subdivisions, but Silicon Valley is home to a thriving subculture of backyard hobbyists and specialized farmers. While they grow their fruit in the same world-class soils and great climate that made the valley so fertile, what these fruit aficionados grow is very different from the commercial varieties of prunes, cherries and apricots grown back when Campbell's Pruneyard Shopping Center was a prune-drying yard and Blossom Hill Road was flanked by flowering fruit blossoms.

Paradise Lost

The story of Santa Clara County's transformation from an agricultural arcadia into Silicon Valley is a familiar, almost mythical one.

Once upon a time, the dusty sweet smell of cherry, plum and apricot blossoms wafted over the land, an area once known as the Valley of the Heart's Delight. In the spring, day trippers from San Francisco and beyond would come just to behold the sight of the acres and acres of flowering fruit trees.

At the height of the agricultural boom in the 1920s and 1930s, more than 100,000 acres of orchards blanketed the valley. But then came development. And lots of people.

After World War II, Santa Clara County embarked on a building boom that saw the prune and cherry orchards as quaint vestiges of a dying era. The rise of the aeronautics industry and the circuit board and computer chip enterprises that followed were the undoing of the valley orchards. The recent closure of the valley's last fruit canneries threw a final shovel of dirt onto the orchard era's grave.

Today, there are roughly 20,000 acres of agriculture left, most of it clustered in southern Santa Clara County around Morgan Hill, Gilroy and the Coyote Valley. The Coyote Valley, a fertile, 7,000-acre area between San Jose and Morgan Hill, is slated for office and residential development by the city of San Jose. There is also a small but growing acreage of vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

While the obituary of the valley's fruit growers was written long ago, they didn't totally die out. They just went underground.

Grow It Yourself

Wong, who makes her living as an interior and landscape designer, developed her passion for rare plants when she moved to San Jose from her native Guilin, China, more than 25 years ago. Wong calls Guilin, which is located in subtropical southeast China just north of Vietnam, "the most beautiful spot on earth." She started planting rare fruits to remind her of home.

"When I first came over here it was rare to see a mango."

Now she has her own mango tree, albeit in a greenhouse. Waving her hand around her backyard, she marvels at its abundance.

"It's the dead of winter. We're so blessed."

To support her fruit habit, Wong is a member of the Santa Clara County chapter of California Rare Fruit Growers. The 200-plus members make the local chapter the second largest in the state.

San Mateo resident Corrie Grové is the chapter president. He is a retired engineer originally from South Africa. His backyard is the antithesis of Wong's riot of vegetation. The trees that grow on his sloped yard, many of which have been grafted with multiple kinds of fruit, are carefully labeled. Instead of rain buckets, Grové has a temperature-activated mister that sprays frost-sensitive plants when the thermometer dips too low at night.

But like Wong, he's drawn to the obscure fruit that the commercial market can't or won't supply.

"We try to grow the things that aren't on the market," he says matter-of-factly, as if growing anything you could buy at Safeway would be a waste of time.

He ticks off the bounty in his backyard. Twelve kinds of figs. Passion fruit. Guava. Cherimoya. Surinam cherries. Quince. Chinese mulberries.

"You cannot buy [these fruits] for the life of you. The only way you can get it is to grow it yourself."

Just Peachy

In their zeal for growing the rare and exotic, there's something subversive, even radical, about these fruit fanatics. Rather than put up with mushy Red Delicious apples and flavorless store-bought peaches, they reject tasteless agricultural commodities and grow their own. As a result, they're helping to save rare fruit varieties and offer a critique of a marketplace that values appearance and transportability over taste.

The local chapter of California Rare Fruit Growers meets on the grounds of Emma Prusch Farm Park in San Jose. It is an appropriate setting. In 1962, Emma Prusch deeded 87 acres of what was her farm and dairy to the city.

Seeing that the valley's agricultural days were numbered, Prusch requested that the city "make said park a place of relaxation, recreation and enjoyment for the people of the city of San Jose, and ... give to said park a rural country character and atmosphere."

Forty-seven acres of her gift now make up the park. In addition to the original Prusch family home, the park is home to cattle, sheep, pigs and several wandering chickens. For fruit lovers, the park is particularly precious. The park has three fruit orchards: an international rare fruit orchard that features fruit trees from around the world, an intensively planted demonstration orchard and a heritage orchard of more rare fruit trees. These trees, about 500 in all, are more than a living museum.

The trees are a "germplasm repository," a bank of genetic material unmatched in Northern California. The trees are also an important source of scion wood (cuttings used for grafting) so that others can propagate the trees.

The group's February meeting was packed with dedicated fruit growers and several newcomers eager to start growing fruit of their own. Like all of the group's meetings, it began with a tasting of fresh fruit.

Even in February there was plenty to eat, including yuzu (a Japanese citrus), unique orange varieties, kumquats, dried persimmons, pineapple guava jam and a mound of paw paw seeds, a custardy fruit native to the southern United States.

After snacking on the winter bounty, the group peppered a Fremont nurseryman about growing avocados and bananas—both are easy to do if you plant the right variety in the right part of your yard.

One of those in attendance was Willow Glen resident Nancy Garrison. Garrison was instrumental in establishing Prusch Park's international rare fruit orchard, and she's something of a female Johnny Appleseed. She just retired from her 27-year career as the local UC Cooperative Extension adviser for urban horticulture and master gardener coordinator.

When she moved to San Jose from Los Angeles to take the job, she looked at aerial maps of the city to find neighborhood with big lots to accommodate her dirty habits. While she toured what would become her home, her real estate agent extolled the virtues of the master bedroom, but Garrison was drooling over the huge backyard.

Twenty-six years later, the yard is nothing less than a food forest that produces fruit all year long. Right now, a sprawling, octopuslike passion fruit vine is dropping its hard-shelled, luscious fruit all over her yard.

While she's retired now, Garrison, a hearty blonde with strong hands, is still active with the local California Rare Fruit Growers association and works as a gardening consultant.

"My whole purpose is to take whatever is fresh or ripe and show it to people so they say, 'Oh my God. I have to grow that.' ... It's my mission in life to get people to grow whatever they can."

All the valley's development has not changed the fact that the combination of soil and climate make Santa Clara County unique in the world for the sheer variety of fruit that can be grown here, she says.

Andy Mariani

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Ultra Rare: Andy Mariani of Morgan Hill maintains the one-of-a-kind Andy's Orchard.

Plum Job

Rare fruit is not limited to backyard growers. Way down in Morgan Hill just east of Highway 101 is the mecca of rare and heirloom fruit. Andy's Orchard is arguably the premier rare fruit grower in the county. Andy Mariani grows hundreds of varieties of cherry, peach, plum, nectarine, apricot and other stone fruits on 28 acres just west of the Anderson Reservoir.

David Karp, a food writer who regularly contributes to Gourmet magazine and The New York Times, hails him as the "only three-star fruit grower that I know of. There's nobody like him in the United States."

Like many of the valley's fruit-growing families, Mariani's family came from the former Yugoslavia. Mariani's father emigrated from what is now known as Croatia in 1931 and settled in Cupertino.

"When we came here the climate was just so good for growing stone fruits that we just started growing stone fruits," he says as he walked his orchards on a clear and cold February morning.

The family grew apricots and prunes on a 12-acre ranch near what is now Apple country just off De Anza Boulevard. (Back then, Apple's headquarters was a prune-drying yard.) Feeling the squeeze of the valley's growing population, Mariani's father sold the farm in 1957 and bought land in Morgan Hill.

The only remnant of the Cupertino farm is Mariani Avenue, a street off De Anza Boulevard named after the family. Mariani's house stood roughly where an Outback Steakhouse is now. He dines there now and then to commune with his past.

After farming with his brother Mitch for years, Mariani split off two years ago to go in his own direction and create Andy's Orchard, a specialty operation based on direct marketing. Central to his business is an old-timey country store packed with dried fruit confection like sugar plums and chocolate-dipped apricots and on-site fruit tastings in the summer where for $10 the public can taste up to 75 varieties of just-picked fruit. They're also free to pick ripe fruit right off the trees for themselves.

The first year on his own he lost money, but as more people discover what tree-ripened stone fruit tastes like, his business is growing.

Together with brother Mitch, Mariani planted more and more varieties of fruit, including forgotten, commercially unavailable varieties as well newly developed cultivars, in order to have a succession and a variety of ripening fruit.

As the number of small farms like his shrank and Central Valley-based agribusiness giants increasingly dominated the market with a few, lackluster varieties of fruit, Mariani realized he had carved out a niche for himself: high-quality, great-tasting fruit that few other farmers were growing.

"But then the passion turned to madness," he jokes.

Now he plants every new variety he can get a hold of to see how it performs. Not all make it but some thrive. Mariani is one of the few growers of the legendary greengage plum, a gorgeous, perfumed-fleshed fruit that when ripe becomes a quivering orb of nectar, barely contained by its thin skin. Because of its fragility, the plum does not ship well and is seldom found in stores.

Mariani is particularly proud of the Baby Crawford peach, a variety he developed. The small, intensely delicious fruit has been added to the Slow Food organization's "Arc of Taste," a list of rare, artisanal food products that merit special recognition and preservation.

The peach is a far cry from commercially popular peaches, fruit that Mariani describes as "big, red and hard." (The reason most store-bought peaches are red, he says, is to disguise the fact that they're picked before they're ripe.)

David "Mas" Masumoto is a Central Valley organic farmer and writer who has helped awaken the public to the value of family farms and the preservation of rare, heirloom fruit varieties. Masumoto writes lovingly and eloquently about the Sun Crest peach in the prologue of his book Epitaph for a Peach:

    Sun Crest is one of the last remaining truly juicy peaches. When you wash that treasure under a stream of cooling water, your fingertips instinctively search for the gushy side of the fruit. Your mouth waters in anticipation. You lean over the sink to make sure you don't drip on yourself. Then you sink your teeth into the flesh and the juices trickle down your cheeks and dangle on your chin. This is a real bite, a primal act, a magical sensory celebration announcing that summer has arrived.

As a fellow traveler, Masumoto befriended Mariani and was impressed with his "spirit of experimentation," a practice that is all too absent from commercial market. Growing rare and commercially unavailable fruit is an important and powerful act, he says.

"By doing this, we're not going to find a cure for cancer, but by saving the old varieties we're finding a cure for life," he says.

Biting into a juicy ripe peach just plucked from a tree on a summer day reconnects us with our youth and days gone by and creates new memories, he says.

"How do people know what they're missing if they've never had a memory of it?"

He says the only way farmers can continue to grow rare fruit is by partnering with an urban public.

"We save them together," he says.

At this point, farmers need the public more than the public needs them.

"I hope the urban areas come to depend on the farms."

That's what Mariani is counting on, too.

"[My customers] are getting something altogether different than what they're getting at the supermarket," he says.

Tree Museum

Mariani has few peers in Silicon Valley. The Olson family continues to sell its famous cherries at a white clapboard fruit stand on El Camino Real. Charlie Olson, whose family began farming 30 acres in 1899, also cares for a 10-acre heritage apricot orchard that includes an educational exhibit about the valley's agricultural history.

Across the valley in Saratoga on Fruitvale Road, the Novakovich family is holding onto its 11-acre orchard. Like Mariani, the Novakovichs (also from the former Yugoslavia) have survived by adapting to changes in the market.

When the Turkish dried apricots blew out the domestic market in the mid-1980s, the Novakovichs had to evolve. Realizing they couldn't compete with the Turks, the Novakovichs turned to direct marketing, selling their fruit and fruit boxes directly to the public from a simple farm stand near the family's 1890 homestead.

The pressure to sell out has been great. Drive down Fruitvale Road and you pass one faux-Tuscan mansion after another. A steady stream of real estate agents has come knocking to see if the family was willing to sell. The last time he checked, third-generation farmer Matt Novakovich said the land could fetch $5 million an acre. Seeing how they're sitting on $55 million, it's fair to say the family are committed to maintaining their way of life, one that is increasingly incongruous with the conspicuous wealth all around them.

What's kept the farm alive is the quality of the fruit, cherries, peaches, nectarines and apricots, especially apricots. Matt's grandfather Mato Novakovich had the foresight to plant Blenheim apricots, a variety that is perfectly suited to Saratoga's mild days and cool nights. In addition to superior flavor, the Blenheim also dries and cans particularly well, making it an elegant workhorse of a fruit.

"The key to this is the quality of the fruit," he says. "If you've got a specialty you can hang in there."

Without that, the farm would probably be covered by luxury homes and swimming pools. The Novakovichs and their relatives used to own 80 acres of orchards that stretched from Redwood Middle School to Douglass Lane. The 11 acres he owns along with his two brothers and mother are all that's left.

"This is the last of the ag," says Novakovich, eyeing an approaching storm from under his green John Deere cap. "It's the tree museum."

But for now this living museum is very much alive and spring is right around the corner. If the bruise-colored rain clouds looming in the sky don't batter the newly emerged pink and white blossoms, another season of rare and delicious fruit awaits. Here's to another spring in the Valley of the Heart's Delight.


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