The Great Georgian Fruit Hunt

Sent to the Caucasus by the U.S. government, Malli Aradhya forages through orchards and markets in search of the perfect specimen

To botanists, the Caucasus Mountain region is known as a center of diversity for figs as well as mulberries, grapes, walnuts, apricots, pomegranates and almonds. (Alastair Bland)

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As we drive out of Tbilisi in Maghradze’s four-wheel-drive Honda CRV, en route to see the old former capital city of Mtskheta, a bushy plume of foliage spilling over a fence catches Aradhya’s attention.

“There’s a big green fig,” he tells Maghradze, who immediately pulls over on the busy boulevard. The tree, growing at the edge of a yard, is laden with large, pear-shaped fruits—and with small eyeholes, much like the ones we saw in the market. We look through the wooden gate for the owners of the property. “No one will notice if we take some cuttings from the sidewalk,” I suggest.

“Always best to ask,” says Aradhya, who has played this game a hundred times before. No one, he says, has ever refused to give branch cuttings from a tree. Still, he adds, “Germplasm collection takes many forms – sometimes borrowing without asking, sometimes jumping fences.”

In this case, Maghradze succeeds in alerting a woman in the yard and explaining what’s up—that the U.S. government would like to borrow wood from your fig tree—and she warmly lets us in. She has a black mulberry tree, a persimmon and three figs. We start with the big green. I taste while Aradhya collects wood with a pair of rose cutters. The figs are soft, jam sweet, raspberry red inside, and creamy. They’re excellent, but Aradhya doesn’t even bother tasting; he is thrilled simply by the small parameters of the eyehole.

“These figs are fantastic, better than any material I got in Azerbaijan,” he marvels as he cuts branch tips.

He tries to collect six to eight cuttings per specimen, assuming that one-third will fail to take root while counting on the survival of at least two for the Wolfskill repository. The orchard is often likened to a Noah’s Ark of tree fruits, and the USDA makes the material it holds freely available for any gardeners, farmers and breeders in the world. Aradhya says that germplasm collected from western Asia has already served to build new and better cultivars in California’s nut industries, and fig breeders, both public and private, have also created new varieties, some now undergoing experimental use by the state’s fig growers. War, deforestation and agricultural homogenization can and do diminish the diversity of a region’s cultivated plants and thereby drive demand for new plant types.

But Aradhya considers his own work for the USDA to be mostly a counterstrike to the expected effects of climate change. California’s mild Mediterranean climate, dry in summer, wet in winter and neither exceptionally hot nor exceptionally cold in most parts, could be thrown out of whack by minor changes in global weather patterns—and changes are coming.

“Nobody knows exactly what will happen, but all the models point toward unexpected consequences,” Aradhya tells me one morning in Tbilisi over a hotel breakfast of melon, yogurt, peaches and Nescafé. New environmental circumstances, he says—like, say, warm damp summers—could allow pathogens previously unknown in California’s Central Valley to colonize the air and soil. Crops of particularly homogenous nature like California’s walnuts and pistachios could be vulnerable to such changes.

“So we want to broaden the genetic base of crops,” Aradhya says. “We need genetic resources to do that, and that’s why we’re here.”

Village gardens and farmers markets are the likeliest bets for discovering superior local fruit types, and we visit a large bazaar almost every day. Anything unusual—whether an exceptionally large almond or a strangely shaped peach or a wonderful tasting fig—catches Aradhya’s attention. Often Maghradze and Bobokashvili are just as intrigued, and the vendors stare in wonderment as the three scientists kneel for closer inspection of the fruit piles; their pens and notebooks come out, they scribble their remarks and they snap digital photos.


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