Mother Trees: California Group Works to Save Survivors

Mother Tree_of_Life-1406467517

Sometime ago a Santa Barbara avocado grower invited me to take a walk to what he called the “Mother Tree.” I’d heard the term, but didn’t really know what it meant. I gathered it referred to an old tree that had been grafted to create more trees and then, with more grafting, more trees, eventually resulting in an orchard.

But, the way the farmer asked, his shy offer to show me his Mother Tree, implied more than simply visiting a hearty tree with prolific off-spring. His tone suggested something more.

He would have blustered at the suggestion it was something sacred, yet I couldn’t help feeling he was taking me someplace special. We walked quietly in the early evening deep into the grove, scuffling leaves and stepping over sprinkler lines. He carried a long pole with a gripper on the end.

As dusk gathered, we stood at the base of strong tree with lush canopy and looked up. Although the grove had recently been picked, this tree had lots of fruit. The farmer hoisted his pole and plucked the huge fruit, handing each piece to me, explaining he saved the fruit from this tree for family and friends.

I stuffed my backpack as he handed over the fruit, not realizing how much they weighed until I tried to lift my pack. The farmer gave me a hand with the load and we headed back to his truck. The fruit I brought home weighed a pound or more apiece and when ripe the flesh was smooth and creamy, flavored like nuts and honey.

The experience changed my way of thinking about trees. The fruit of some trees are bigger and better than others. I don’t know why, but today when I buy avocados, I secretly know what I’m getting isn’t the absolute, ultimate best and I listen closely when someone talks about Mother Trees to find out more, hungering for fruit that comes straight from the source.

And, now I know the beauty and abundance of California’s millions of acres of fruit groves and orchards are the product of strong, prolific mothers. Although the tree where I first tasted Mother Fruit isn’t actually the oldest avocado tree in California or the original mother, I’m convinced it’s her oldest daughter and worthy of protection.

The actual Mother Avocado Tree died in La Habra Heights in 2002. Every Hass Avocado tree in the world can trace its lineage to that one tree. The tree’s wood is currently stored in a Ventura nursery awaiting decision on a fitting commemoration of the original Hass Mother Tree.

Which brings me to the newly launched efforts of the Felix Gillet Institute. This newly formed group aims to properly place Gillet, who was a Nevada City nurseryman in the mid-1800s, in the history of California and United States agriculture through research and education. The foundation said it’s goal is to educate farmers and gardeners about the many tree and plant species he introduced because they continue to provide valuable genetic material for modern propagation. Gillet bred and sold Mother Trees.

Gillet brought cuttings from Europe for fruits, nuts, grapes, berries and ornamentals to the Sierra foothill’s and these original plants have provided food and fiber that play a strong role today in American agriculture. The Felix Gillet Institute is raising funds to search out and relocate the more than 100 original plant varieties imported and hybridized by Gillet.

Amigo Bob Cantisano, the Founder of FGI and a highly regarded organic farmer, described Gillet’s work this way: “pretty much everything that we eat in the perennial crops, except for citrus and olives, we can thank Gillet for. He did asparagus and artichokes and hops and raspberry and rhubarb, the whole nine yards.”

But his first love was fruit trees. The original tree stock he sold to early California settlers are scattered throughout the foothills. The group intends to gather these surviving specimens and replant them in a Mother Orchard on Heaven and Earth Farm on San Juan Ridge outside Nevada City. They will sell trees propagated from these Mothers or in most cases Grandmothers, which are now feral and endangered in the wild. Those who’ve tasted their fruit say the flavors are out of this world.

More information on the Gillet Foundation and the effort to save the Mothers is online at  http://felixgillet.org/ 

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