GOLD! Gold in the Bird Back 40!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Twenty Ounce Apple Tree-Bird Back 40
Well -- not really gold per se. Sorry to get you excited. I did not unearth golden nuggets during the latest "Big Dig" in the Bird Back 40. But -- I will tell you this much. I brought some gold rush history back home and planted it. Soon, provided the wife that is Venus and I are lucky, we'll be munching on what the Gold Rush 49ers munched on more than a century ago.

This is prime bare root fruit tree season in California and across the rest of the country. It's warming up fast outside in California, but there's still a little time left to head out to your favorite nursery and purchase the fruit tree of your choice. This happens to be a very good time for it! The nurseries are stocked to the gills with every fruit tree variety under the sun. Peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots, apples, you name it.

Flavor Finale Pluots (Delicious)
Do you like fruit cocktail trees? One tree with three or four different varieties of fruit grafted to it? You'll find that as well. How about the new and exciting introductions from Dave Wilson Nursery? The Pluot? Plumcot? Aprium? The Pride Peach Collection? Yes sir! You'll find that your local nursery has plenty of them in stock as well.

The Bird Back 40 is stocked with DWN specialty trees -- from the Honey Crisp Apple to the Flavor Finale Pluot. Look closely enough and you'll spot the Pride Peach Collection (five Pride Peach selections grafted to one tree). You might even spot an Aprium. Maybe...

"Amigo" Bob Cantisano
But this year we decided to do something a little differently. For, it was last year when I read a wonderful story in the Home and Garden section of the Sacramento Bee about a man by the name of "Amigo" Bob Cantisano. Bob is a Nevada County native who helped start the Heaven and Earth Nursery in North San Juan (Felix Gillet Institute), a magical place designed to preserve and protect the gold rush fruit tree history of a one Felix Gillet.

Who is Felix Gillet and why have you and I never heard of him? I could bore you with volumes of details that I've learned about this legendary character and his rightful place in California fruit and nut tree history, but I won't. Suffice to say, Felix was an original California pioneer. He immigrated to the United States from France, and some years later made his way out to the gold fields in California.

Felix Gillet
Felix, however, didn't come here to pan gold. Although he did have some mining claims, nobody is quite sure what Felix did with them. Nope -- Felix was a barber by trade. He owned and operated a barbershop in Nevada City, where he also sold "French Finery" such as pens, stationary and toys. But his biggest contribution to California agricultural history was yet to come.

Gillet returned to France in 1864 to learn the nursery trade, and upon his return to Nevada City, he purchased 16 acres of land that had been stripped clean and timbered by gold miners. He would name this his Barren Hill Nursery. And, it's on this tiny plot of land where Gillet helped jump start not only the California fruit and nut tree industry, but the nut tree industries in neighboring Oregon and Washington State as well.

Bigarreau de Mai Cherry (Gillet Introduction)
Gillet spent thousands of dollars on importing fruit and nut trees from France via ship and then rail to Northern California, where he helped adapt his French offerings to the California climate. He is directly responsible for many of the fruit trees grown in California today, in not just backyards like ours but commercial orchards as well.

Cantisano, who has been promoting Gillet's groundbreaking work for decades, has managed to find thousands of Gillet fruit trees in old gold rush mining camps and in gold rush communities like Nevada City. Surprisingly, these trees, which are more than 150 years old, are still alive and still very productive.

Heaven and Earth Farm-North San Juan
During a recent presentation to the Nevada County Historical Society, Cantisano pointed out just one of dozens of cherry varieties that Gillet introduced to California. It's called the Bigarreau Gross de Mezel. Please don't ask me to pronounce that, because I'll fail miserably. Did you know this is still widely grown in California and elsewhere? It is, but the name of it has changed. Today we call it the Bing Cherry.

Have you ever eaten a Bing Cherry before? Then Cantisano says "you've tasted Felix Gillet." But it didn't stop with fruit and nut trees. Gillet was also responsible for importing French wine grapes into California. Have you heard of varieties called Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sirah and Petite Sirah?

Twenty Ounce Apple
If you've ever had a glass of any of these wines, Cantisano will tell you that "you've tasted Felix Gillet."

As I began to learn more about Gillet and his work, it struck me that he laid the foundation for modern agriculture in California. Short and sweet, there would be no Dave Wilson Nursery without Gillet and his introductions. There would be no Floyd Zaiger and Zaiger Genetics, the family that brought us the Pluot and many other recent introductions.

Gillet wasn't the only breeder introducing fruit trees to California during the Gold Rush. There were others. But he was the only large provider located in old gold rush territory. Today, if you find a fruit tree growing at an old mining camp somewhere in Butte, Nevada, Placer, Sierra, Plumas, El Dorado, Amador or Calaveras Counties, chances are it came from Gillet's Barren Hill Nursery. And, if you ask Cantisano, he will tell you that he's literally stumbled onto thousands of them. Yet, at the same time, he'll also admit that he's barely scratched the surface of how many Gillet fruit introductions are still out there -- waiting to discovered -- just as the gold nuggets were waiting for gold rush miners that flocked to California.

Barren Hill Nursery Property
So -- in honor of this man's unique history and Amigo Cantisano's work to preserve Gillet's contributions, Venus and I ordered two fruit tree selections from the Heaven and Earth Farm: the Twenty Ounce Apple and the Birchville Beauty (Update: I've recently learned the Birchville Beauty may, in fact, be the Bigarreau de Maia cherry. Roughly translated, that's May Sweet Cherry). Both mother trees were discovered at long-abandoned mining camps in Nevada County. Both are more than 150 years old. Both are still very productive.

The drive to this nursery was an adventure in itself. Heaven and Earth Farm is located off Highway 49 above Nevada City. Highway 49 is in good enough shape, as are most of the connecting roads. But it's that second, third and fourth turns that are a little interesting.

Soon, you find yourself turning left on something that should be called "You Call This a Road?" And then there's that right on "This Looks More Like a Game Trail Than a Road." It's one of them "white knuckle" type drives that you're not going forget anytime soon.

Venus with Adam Nuber-Heaven and Earth Farm
Both apple and cherry tree have found a home in the Bird Back 40, but that's not the end of this story. No, it's really just beginning. It would seem to me that someone who contributed as much as Gillet did to California agriculture would not only be remembered, but celebrated.

But he's not. I'd never heard of Felix Gillet until I read Debbie Arrington's story about Amigo Cantisano and his Heaven and Earth Farm. Why isn't there a statue of this man in front of the headquarters of the California Department of Food and Agriculture? Why has Felix Gillet been forgotten? Pushed off the history pages of Horticulture?

I have my feelings and suspicions as to why. It's a subject that I will tackle with my next blog posting. Until then, dear readers, I've got two new fruit trees to water and care for.


Fred Hoffman said...

Thanks for showcasing this horticultural/agricultural Hall of Famer, Amigo Bob. The trees that he is discovering from our past, because they have withstood the ravages of time, hold the key to our future food supply.

Bill Bird said...

Thank you Fred. Both purchases are a roll in the dice. I have no idea what kind of chill hours both trees need. I don't think that information is available. Although they assure me that the trees will do well in the river bottom, time will tell.