You don’t walk through Catherine Anderson’s garden. You dance through it as best you can, looking like Nijinsky with an inner-ear disorder, to avoid stepping on the wild strawberry vines creeping across the ground. After tasting one of the fingernail-size berries hidden beneath, which contain all the scent and sugar of their bigger cousins, you don’t want to waste a one. Anderson’s well-tended backyard garden contains dozens of fruits, among them blueberries, raspberries, ollalieberries, figs, autumn olives, feijoa, and goumi.
Anderson is president of the Golden Gate chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers, an organization of amateur and professional gardeners obsessed with growing fruits you’ll never spot in Safeway. Paul Thompson and John Riley founded the larger group in 1968. The two were fascinated with the idea of growing tropical and subtropical fruits in their gardens, and wanted to help others do the same. Now based out of Cal State Fullerton, the organization has more than three thousand members, and eighteen chapters statewide. The local chapter, formed in 1980, covers Northern Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Francisco counties — most of its 85 current members live in the East Bay. “People who do this are a little quirky,” Anderson says.
One of the group’s top missions is to track down little-known varieties of common fruits. Tom Addison describes his El Cerrito garden as “a typical suburban lawn, not a quarter acre,” yet he grows hundreds of fruit varieties there. So many, in fact, that his collection has expanded to his aunt’s house, the front of a friend’s apartment building, El Cerrito High School, and a few public places he’d rather not reveal. He counts 45 varieties of Asian plums, many of them on “multigrafted” trees — a single rootstock with several different varieties of fruit grafted onto the branches — the space-conscious gardener’s equivalent of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. Tags are essential.
The rare-fruit growers are far from genetic purists, though. While all of them search out heirloom varieties no longer grown commercially — Anderson, for example, is trying to hunt down the Fastolf raspberry, a German variety first planted in West Oakland in the 1800s — they’re happy to grow modern strains such as contemporary horticulturalist Floyd Zaiger’s apriums, pluots, and plumcots. For these growers, taste trumps appearance.
Their other quest is to test the limits of what grows in the East Bay. Bananas, anyone? With a pocketknife, Larry Shore cuts a couple of dwarf orinocos off the trees alongside his San Leandro home. The mottled yellow fruits, which grow in spiral “hands,” resemble stubby plantains. But the flesh is elegantly sweet, with flowery overtones and a bright shock of acid not found in the green-picked supermarket types.
Shore’s small stand is one of just two sets of fruiting banana trees the group knows of in the Bay Area (the other is in front of Albany restaurant Ruen Pair). Bananas are rarely grown outside tropical zones, but several years ago Shore learned of a Modesto Rare Fruit Grower who was able to produce fruit from this Cuban variety. He thought he’d experiment on his sunny lot, and secured a cutting. To keep the budding fruit alive through winter, starting in November Shore wrapped the side of his house in tarps and mattress padding, then strung Christmas lights along the bottom for a little extra warmth. He now has four hands of fruit, and is cutting down trees that already have fruited to make room for new shoots to grow — they fruit only once. “The Bay Area as a whole can grow more fruits than anywhere else in the country,” Catherine Anderson notes. But what flourishes in Walnut Creek may not set fruit in West O: “Inland areas grow temperate fruits. Closer to the bay, temperate, subtropical, and sometimes even tropical fruit can be grown. The coastal fog belt, on the west side of the hills, shares some climate characteristics as the high-elevation tropical cloud forests of South America.”
One of the happiest plants in Katherine Pyle’s West Berkeley garden is the cherimoya, a Peruvian fruit with scaly skin and ambrosial flesh. She recently, and ruthlessly, pruned it back, for good reason: Outside of their native region, cherimoyas must be hand-pollinated. Pyle, a quarter-century member of CRFG, experiments constantly. “This plant comes from [San Francisco’s] Strybing Arboretum,” she says, pointing to a passionfruit vine strapped to the fence. Two narrow green fruits are drooping from the remains of flowers. “I have no idea what it’s going to do here.”
Pyle also dabbles in Andean tubers such as yakon and oca, spice trees like cardamom (which doesn’t fruit), and a host of subtropicals she has found at nurseries, the USDA Germplasm Repository in Winters, and fellow members’ gardens.
The Golden Gate chapter holds bimonthly meetings where participants bring fruits for tasting, listen to lectures, and exchange seeds and cuttings. Some members go to great lengths to locate new or tastier fruits. Anderson mentions one Marin County-based member who prowls residential neighborhoods in search of loquat trees that produce good-tasting fruit. Like certain strains of feijoas and strawberry guavas, loquats are found around the Bay Area, but most are grown as ornamentals.
Tom Addison also has a confession to make. He delights in guerrilla grafting: “You take some widely planted ornamental cherry plums, and can graft onto those a variety of other species, so you’ll have a beautiful street tree that will have a couple of branches producing delectable fruit,” he says. He mostly does this in places he’s unlikely to return to.
The rare fruit growers’ Web site (CRFG.org) is a treasure trove for interested gardeners, with lists of fruit varieties, books and other references on cultivation, plus tips for growing many familiar species. Although the local chapter’s next meeting isn’t until July, it has organized a cherry tasting on June 18 at Andy Mariani’s nursery and orchard in Morgan Hill (AndysOrchard.com).
When asked what she does with her bounty, Pyle laughs, then says, “Watch the animals eat it.” All the members interviewed make jams and jellies. Addison dries a fair amount. Shore loves to share his fruit. And, of course, they all love to sample these crops at their peak. Most of the crops, at least — not every rare fruit is a rare pleasure. Anderson’s goumi, an ornamental from Japan, produces fruits that look like oblong red-flame grapes. They’re plump and juicy, but pop one in your mouth and you’re hit with the impression of an astringent, underripe cherry tomato. “You try a lot of stuff that doesn’t work out so well,” Pyle explains. She then holds out her hand to collect the seed.