Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Heirloom fruit has bonus beyond taste

There’s a reason heirloom crops have lasted a hundred years or more.

Sure, they taste great – and that keeps farmers and gardeners growing this produce – but there might be something more to their inherent longevity. It may go down to their genes.

Some of the oldest fruit varieties appear to have natural tolerance to drought and many pests or diseases. That built-in drought- and pest-tolerance is key to their long-term survival.

Organic farming pioneer Amigo Bob Cantisano can’t point to anything definitive, but he sees the proof in abandoned orchards and wild seedlings scattered throughout the Sierra foothills where he’s lived and farmed for 40 years. Some fruit trees were born to last – even when water is extremely limited.

“These plants seem to do really well in the drought,” he observed. “They’re more adapted. They were brought to California before the era of irrigation, so they had to be hardy and able to take some stress. About 80 percent of the plants we’re dealing with don’t get a drop of water except rainfall.”

For several local farmers markets, Cantisano grows more than 40 crops on his Heaven and Earth Farm in North San Juan about half an hour outside Nevada City off Highway 49.

“It’s hard to tell how this drought will affect our harvest,” he said. “Last year, we were swamped with apples, cherries and pears and we had barely a bit of rain after January.”

In particular, Cantisano has focused on fruit, nut, grape and berry varieties popularized by another pioneer, Nevada City nurseryman Felix Gillet. Cantisano’s Felix Gillet Institute is working to preserve hundreds of heirloom varieties Gillet introduced to California in the 1800s or helped develop.

Today at noon, Cantisano will discuss the institute’s work during a special presentation at the Sacramento Perennial Plant Club’s annual vendors sale. Open free to the public, the event will be held at the Shepard Garden and Arts Center in Sacramento’s McKinley Park.

“Amigo Bob is one of the most widely experienced and influential figures in California organic agriculture and an internationally recognized pioneer in the modern organic farming revolution,” said Saul Wiseman, SPPC president. “He is the founder of the Felix Gillet Institute, a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to identifying, preserving and propagating the best of the edible and ornamental perennials still thriving in the mining camps, farms, homesteads and towns of the Sierra and elsewhere.”

Cantisano considers Gillet the father of West Coast perennial agriculture. With his plant breeding and introductions, Gillet helped make strawberries and grapes major California industries.

“His Nonpareil almond – a variety he brought to the U.S. – is still the industry standard,” Cantisano said. “He was father of the California walnut industry, too. Almonds, figs, pears, plums, strawberries, wine grapes; just about every crop you can think of, he had a hand in.”

Remnants of Gillet’s work still grow throughout Northern California. Cantisano finds many examples near historic mining camps, stagecoach stops or abandoned homesteads. Trees that fed Gold Rush miners still bear tasty fruit. “It’s been a very fun project,” he said.

Cantisano, 62, knows about the appetite for heirloom produce. He grew heirloom tomatoes long before they became restaurant menu staples.

“I couldn’t give them away when I started growing them more than 20 years ago,” he recalled with a chuckle. “They were too ugly. Now, everybody knows about heirloom tomatoes, but I’m trying to get them to appreciate another kind of heirloom.”

He sees interest in antique fruit following that same path to acceptance. All it takes is a bite; the misfit apples and pears then sell themselves.

“They may not be the most beautiful things, but they taste good,” Cantisano said.

Newtown Pippin, for instance, is one of scores of heirloom varieties grown for today’s consumers on Apple Hill. This old favorite also is one of the primary varieties used in Martinelli’s apple cider, according to the Gillet Institute.

Another plus for both commercial growers and home gardeners: Newtown Pippin is very resistant to codling moth.

Cantisano got his Newtown Pippen cuttings from a 150-year-old tree.

“The completely wild mother tree grows in the town of Forest in Sierra County,” he said in his Gillet plant notes. “Forest was a very productive gold mining camp beginning in 1852. The remaining town is full of antique pears, apples and cherries that we will be introducing over the next several years. ”

What was remarkable was the mother tree’s pest resistance, he added.

“This tree was surrounded by other trees with codling moth and it didn’t have any,” Cantisano said. “That’s got to tell you something.”

Another example is the Doyenne Robin pear. Or is it Bergamotte Bugi? One traces to France, the other to Italy; both look similar and melt in your mouth. The fruit is described as “juicy, sprightly, sweet with occasional acid and some perfume.”

Deciding which variety is which among these old-timers is part of the challenge. Cantisano took cuttings from a mother tree at Bucks Ranch in Nevada County near the historic Orleans Flat mining camp at 4,100 feet on the San Juan Ridge. The mother tree dates back to almost the Gold Rush but is still thriving and bearing heavy crops.

The Gillet Institute catalog (available at sells trees in 43 apple, 20 pear and several other varieties of fruit and nuts. More are always in the works.

“Heirloom fruit is just now getting going,” Cantisano said. “It’s where tomatoes were 20 years ago; people didn’t know they could look and taste different. Same with fruit. We’ve sold out of all our inventory this winter. People are more interested in flavor and they want to taste it for themselves.”