Experimenting with Subtropicals in Northern San Diego County’s Hilly Hinterland
April 1996 – In an old avocado orchard in the coastal foothills of northern San Diego County, Iran and Howard Jewett grow guavas, sapotes, jujubes, cherimoyas and mangos, among other fruits, from India, Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia, Morocco, Greece, Mexico and Peru, among other places. But one of their favorite plant finds happened beside a fountain on Independence Avenue at the foot of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. There sat a large, old jujube tree—one that had been brought from China by Admiral Wilkes in the 19th Century.
Potentially promising new crops for Southern California reside in the subtropical highlands of Ecuador and Peru
One day, when the National Park grounds crew was at work, tidying up the jujube tree by trimming off the unruly sports protruding from the exposed roots, she retrieved a clipping from a trash pile. It took root and grows today, surrounded by dead and dying avocado trees, in the Jewett’s six-acre orchard, alongside dozens of other subtropical fruits that they sell at San Diego County farmers markets.
Northern San Diego County is home to several hundred small growers like the Jewetts, who grow marketable quantities of unsung, oddball fruits from around the world. In fact, the region, with its diverse selection of frost-free pockets of land in the coastal foothills, has been a center of experimentation with rare fruit for more than a century, though interest has ebbed and flowed over the years.
Passage to Bonsall From India via Hawaii
Interest was certainly at a low ebb when Paul Thomson arrived in the area 44 years ago. He had grown to love many of the fruits of the tropics and subtropics during his childhood as the son of missionaries in India. He had begun to dabble in growing them when he was stationed in Hawaii with the Marines before World War II. In an orchard on a hillside above Bonsall that he bought in 1952, he planted litchis, mangos, longans, papayas and every other subtropical fruit that he could find. But few others at the time shared his passion for such fruits. The prevailing view was that a dozen or so fruits and nuts had been tried, tested and found to be the ideal crops for California. All other contenders had been tried and found wanting.
Thomson was the driving force behind a movement that would change this way of thinking. In 1968, he founded an organization called California Rare Fruit Growers. With 54 members its first year, the association has grown to nearly 3,000 today, allowing it to claim the title of largest amateur fruit growers association in the world.
CRFG has played a major role in promoting many once-rare fruits that are now widely available at farmers markets throughout Southern California, from pomelos and loquats to sapotes and cherimoyas. CRFG’s strong local legacy is most apparent in the markets of northern San Diego County where cherimoyas are available five or six months a year—and you can choose among varieties including Pierces, Booths, Santa Rosas and Dr. Whites. White sapotes are abundant in the fall and winter, and rarer black, green and yellow sapotes occasionally show up. In the homeland of CRFG, feijoas are called just that, not the common misnomer, pineapple guavas. And “true guavas” hailing from several continents come in numerous sizes, colors and shapes.
Though it now is apparent that the region is a haven for subtropical fruit, it didn’t look that way to Thomson at the outset. His first attempt at growing subtropical fruit in his orchard at Bonsall—which he came to realize was near the bottom of the deep, cold San Luis Rey River valley—ended in failure. He planted all of his favorites and watched them take off the first year only to get wiped out the second, which had “the coldest winter in 50 years.”
Tell Tale Mango Trees
That disaster sent him searching for a warmer spot that would be more suitable for subtropicals. He found what he was looking for just a few miles south of Bonsall and a few hundred feet closer to sea level, an aging avocado orchard on a hillside east of Vista. What he liked best about the place, which he christened Edgehill, was three large, old, forgotten mango trees. “Everybody said you couldn’t grow mangos here,” Thomson recalls. “That was proof positive it could be done.”
The trees were also proof that Thomson wasn’t the first to be inspired by the climate and varied terrain of northern San Diego county to try to grow fruit from the far corners of the world. Indeed, in the first couple of decades of the century, backyard gardeners who didn’t know any better and adventurous farmers throughout Southern California touched off a wave of interest in rare fruit cultivation. Their inspirations were a few iconoclasts, such as an Italian immigrant named Francisco Franceschi, who opened a commercial nursery in Santa Barbara in 1893 that sold a full array of fruits from the tropics, from cherimoyas and mangos to coffee and tea.
By the 1950s, however, that generation had passed. Only a few fruit growers dared to question the conventional wisdom. There were a couple of ex-Marines who ran M&N Nursery, carrying a wide range of fruits from the tropics. Thomson, himself, operated a nursery in the 1950s. But both ventures went under before long. “We were ahead of our time,” he recalls.
It could also be said that they were behind the times. As the old mango trees at Edgehill attested, “We were reinventing the wheel,” Thomson says. That realization inspired him to form California Rare Fruit Growers.
Though just a handful of people were part of the group at first, times were more ripe for a revival of interest in rare fruit than it seemed at the time. “The apparent cultural quiet of the 1950s and 60s masked some very profound changes in our culture,” explained Todd Kennedy, in a history of CRFG that was published in the 20th anniversary yearbook. Newcomers were piling into California “without prejudices about what could not be grown here.” Growing numbers of the middle class were traveling abroad. Suburbs were replacing the large orchards, opening the door for backyard gardeners to prove that the traditional crops weren’t the only things that could thrive in Southern California.
CRFG members had no shortage of suggestions for alternatives. They met regularly to compare results of field trials of different varieties, trade plant stock and share recipes for such things as sapote wine and babaco salad. Members also exchanged information about what was working and what was not in a newsletter, which turned into today’s Fruit Gardener magazine, and an annual CRFG yearbook.
The 1979 state law authorizing the creation of certified farmers markets came at just the right time for many CRFG members. “We were all growing all this interesting fruit but we had no place to sell it,” says Margo Baughman, who founded the North San Diego County chapter of CRFG in 1979. “So we said, ‘Gee, let’s start a farmers market’.”
Rare Fruit Farmers Market
The chapter did just that in 1981, launching the Saturday morning market in Vista, which is still managed by Margo and her husband Dick Baughman. Thomson sold feijoas there for years until other farmers noticed that there was a growing market for them. Other rare fruits have also caught on with a local clientele that has become very sophisticated about subtropical fruit. Many of the trees planted in the early days of CRFG are now in their prime. Their fruit turns up regularly in, among other farmers markets, the Saturday morning market in Vista.
With three decades of well-documented trial and error behind them, rare fruit growers these days can avoid many of the dumber mistakes that the old-timers made. They can more quickly zero in on the varieties that grow best in their particular pocket of the hills.
As a rule of thumb, says George Emerich, a president of CRFG in the 1980s who runs a nursery and orchard in Fallbrook, the best candidates for success in northern San Diego County come from the subtropical highlands, in particular a zone between about 3,500 and 5,000 feet in Ecuador and Peru. The best known of the many varieties of fruit from that part of the world is the cherimoya but there are plenty of other choices.
Thomson, who sold his orchard near Vista some years ago and is back to farming the cold hillside above the San Luis Rey River near Bonsall, is working on one new possibility. His main botanical interest these days is a highly experimental crop of Hylocereus undatus, a climbing cactus species that yields a fruit called the pitaya. Growers in Colombia are having great success with it, Thomson says. They are tearing out coffee plantations to make more room for the crop, which they export to Europe and Japan.
It’s much too early to tell whether pitaya cactus will be a viable crop for farmers in Southern California. But the climate is just about right, and his plants are doing quite well.
Mangos, on the other hand, have never really worked out in northern San Diego County, as generations of frustrated would-be mango growers can attest. Many growers have a tree or two producing a small quantity of fruit. But the trees certainly don’t thrive. Emerich explains that mangos and other tropical trees go into arrest at 55 degrees. A few weeks of weather in the 40s will kill them outright. On many winter nights, the temperature in northern San Diego County dips to 50. As a result, those mangos trees that survive at all are retarded in their development.
In the tropics, mangos grow in five or six bursts, or “flushes,” a year, each adding a foot or more to the height of the tree, he says. But in northern San Diego County, mangos are lucky to get two flushes a year, each adding perhaps half a foot of growth.
“I planted 25 mangos. I have three that are alive, two of them just barely,” says Emerich. “A 10-year old tree in the tropics will be 25 feet tall. Here, you can jump over it.”
Iran Jewett has had slightly better luck. The first mango trees she planted beside her house succumbed to a cold winter eight years ago. She replanted with a variety recommended by Thomson. A tree in one particular spot is doing especially well. It wasn’t exactly a bumper crop. She won’t be selling mangos in the farmers markets any time soon. But the results so far have delighted Iran Jewett. “I got six mangos last year,” she says.
– Mark Thompson