Los Altos resident Robin Chapman planted seeds with members of the Los Altos Rotary Club Aug. 15, sharing her vision for a local festival celebrating “Apricot Days.”
Chapman, author of “California Apricots: The Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley” (History Press, 2013) has fond memories of the fuzzy little fruit and its place in Los Altos’ history. She grew up in a house her father built himself amid apricot orchards.
According to Chapman, the apricot originated in China, where its pictograph shows a tree above an open mouth, signifying its delicious flavor. From China, it traveled the Silk Road to Central Asia, then branched off to Syria, giving rise to the expression, “Like an apricot in Damascus,” meaning “as good as it gets.” “Damasco” is the Spanish word for “apricot,” honoring its popularity in the Syrian capital.
Orchards were also cultivated in Majorca, Spain, and Father Junipero Serra first brought seedlings to California for planting in mission gardens.
Chapman explained how the state’s apricot orchards became truly profitable and plentiful during the Gold Rush and the subsequent development of the transcontinental railroad, which enabled fresh and dried fruit to be transported to the East Coast. Apricot orchards, she said, brought both food and jobs to California.
Chapman estimated that 200,000 acres of fruit trees covered what is now Silicon Valley, making it the largest orchard in the world. Of the abundant orchards, 7 million apricot trees belonged to the late Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard, whose will stipulated that 67 acres be maintained in perpetuity as orchards.
In 1901, J. Gilbert Smith planted an orchard on the San Antonio Road property that now houses the Los Altos Civic Center. While bicycling to and from his job at Stanford University, he pitched a tent in the orchard and built his home, now known as the J. Gilbert Smith History House. The property still boasts an active apricot orchard.
Chapman proposed that “Apricot Days” be celebrated perhaps as a fundraiser for the Los Altos History Museum, a community-building investment, an educational event, green-space preservation and a heritage for future generations.
Marlene Cowan is a member of the Rotary Club of Los Altos.