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Apricots in paradise: Tracing the roots of a fruitful garden legacy

Above Left Town Crier file photo; Above Right and right Photos courtesy of Robin Chapman
In addition to filling the region with pink blossoms in spring, above left, apricot trees and their bounty allow growers to make jam, above right. The old apricot tree, right, still graces the garden of a Los Altos home on Covington Road. Apricot trees can live 50 years, or even longer if planted in the hills.

It was really paradise.

– Steve Jobs, on growing up among abundant apricot trees in Los Altos

Charles Olson, 83, has been taking care of the apricot trees on the land that became Orchard Heritage Park in Sunnyvale for 41 years now.

“I’ve been caring for those trees for almost half my life,” he said.

His fragrant fruit is so tempting that he continues to field calls from residents who want to plant apricot trees in their gardens so that they will turn out just like his. He ordered 15 apricot seedlings for a Los Altos resident recently, and they arrived just in time for spring planting.

Olson agrees that planting apricot trees is a wonderful gardening idea. One good apricot tree can produce 200 pounds of fruit that can be preserved for winter use. But even an amateur grower will have to work at it.

“You can’t just plant ’em and walk away,” he said.

The roots of local apricots

The Spanish missionaries who came to California in 1769 brought the first apricot trees to the region. They discovered that the delicate apricot thrived here in the rich soil and mild climate.

In an interview published in 1892, an Ohlone named Lorenzo said his father recalled seeing the first fruit trees arrive: “The trees were brought to the mission very small, in barrels,” he said, “so that the roots were kept damp. My father told me they had been brought from New Spain.”

The orchards produced seasonal fruit for the missions, but it wasn’t until the Gold Rush that anybody thought about turning them into profit.

Gold fever brought hundreds of thousands of miners to the state, and there was no commercial agriculture to feed them. As the University of California’s Edward Wickson wrote in 1914: “After the incoming of the Americans in 1849, some of the old Mission trees were secured by enterprising men … that they might minister to the great demand for fruit which sprang up among the gold seekers.” Pío Pico, one of the last Mexican governors of California, complained that it was typical of these “hordes of Yankees” he called “perfidious people” who always seemed to be “cultivating” something.

Beautiful business

And cultivate they did.

The opening of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 made it possible to ship California fruit anywhere, and many local residents took part.

Sarah Winchester grew apricots on her 160-acre property near San Jose. Valley pioneer Juana Briones grew them on her ranch in Los Altos Hills.

From 1870 to 1970, orchards filled the Santa Clara Valley. With 24,000 independent growers on 200,000 acres, orchardists had to be entrepreneurs – the forerunners, in spirit, of the innovators who later invented Silicon Valley.

It was a business, but a beautiful one, giving the region blossoms, shade, open space and scented fruit in the summer breeze.

Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs told an interviewer in 1995 what he liked best about growing up in Los Altos: “Silicon Valley for the most part at that time was still orchards – apricot orchards and prune orchards,” he said, “and it was really paradise.” In 1997, when Jobs purchased the house next door to his in Palo Alto and asked for permission to demolish it, it wasn’t because he wanted a bigger house – he wanted to fill the lot with apricot trees.

Which brings us back to the apricot trees you might want to plant in your garden. Olson says, do it. But first, he suggests buying a book – or checking one out from the local library – on growing fruit.

“Good farming practices – I always encourage that,” said Olson, a third-generation grower. Then he quoted an adage from his father: “Take care of your fruit trees and they will take care of you.”

Two neighbors and I are going to try it, in a joint venture outside my garden gate – three neighbors planting three Blenheim apricot trees – and we’re optimistic for our success. Now, if we can just keep the news from the squirrels.

Robin Chapman is a journalist and the author of “California Apricots: The Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley” (History Press, 2013).

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