Saturday, August 16, 2014

Mother Trees Feed the Future

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.

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, not realizing how much the fruit weighed until I tried to lift it. The farmer gave me a hand with the load. The fruit I brought home weighed a couple of pounds or more apiece and when ripe the flesh was smooth and creamy, flavored like nuts and honey.

The experience changed my way of thinking. 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 about them, hungering for fruit that comes straight from the source.

And, now I know the beauty and abundance of California’s millions of acres of groves and orchards are the product of strong, prolific mothers. But, 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.

The actual Mother Avocado Tree died in La Habra Heights in 2002. Every Hass Avocado in the world can trace its lineage to that 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 effort 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.

Amigo Bob Cantisano
Organic grower and Founder of FGI
Gillet brought cuttings from Europe for fruits, nuts, grapes, berries and ornamentals to the Sierra foothill’s during the Gold Rush period from the 1860′s until his death in 1908. These original plants have provided food and fiber that play a strong role today in American agriculture.

Along with all of his many accomplishments, Gillet was a two term City Councilman of Nevada City, was responsible for creating Nevada City’s first water system, moved the City Hall to its present location, was a prime mover in the Workingman’s Party, was a founder of what is now the State of California Department of Food and Agriculture, and was a prolific author whose work appeared in numerous agricultural publications.

The Felix Gillet Institute is raising funds to collect the more than 100 original plant varieties imported by Gillet that are scattered throughout the Sierra foothills and plant them in a Mother Orchard on Heaven and Earth Farm on San Juan Ridge. All of the trees will be propagated from the Grandmothers, which were planted and treasured in the 1800s by miners and homesteaders, and are now feral and endangered in the wild.

This orchard will preserve the best of 19th century fruit and nuts for lifetimes to come. To support this horticultural preservation effort, contact the Felix Gillet Institute at 

Information about the fund raising effort is online at Barnraiser.