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)

In the basins of the Mediterranean, the Black and the Caspian seas, they line the roadsides and populate the villages with the roguish persistence of weeds. They grow from Spanish castle walls, the bellies of Roman bridges, and the cobblestones of Muslim mosques. They grow in neatly arranged orchards, while volunteer seedlings sprout from cracks in the walls and splits in the sidewalks. Few people look twice at a fig tree in western Asia, where the trees are as common as people themselves. Late each summer, the branches sag with the weight of the crop, and on the sidewalks below, fallen figs accumulate in carpets of jammy, sticky paste. Locals eat what they can, both fresh and dried. Other figs are canned, some reduced into syrup, and a few infused into liquors. In markets at the height of the season, vendors let their apples sit but madly push their fresh figs at passersby, wishing to sell them even for a trifle before the delicate fruits spoil.

To botanists, this region of the Caucasus Mountains is known as a center of diversity for figs as well as mulberries, grapes, walnuts, apricots, pomegranates and almonds. All have grown here for millennia and through constant sexual reproduction have attained a tremendous range of genetic diversity, the variation easily seen on a walk through most villages or a visit to a large fruit bazaar.

It’s precisely this spectrum of colors, shapes, sizes and flavors that has drawn Malli Aradhya to the lowlands of the Republic of Georgia, a former Soviet nation banking the Black Sea and just south of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. He is a geneticist with the U. S. Department of Agriculture, and this is his fifth fruit-hunting expedition to the region in six summers. His objective: to collect tree crop varieties, transport them home as seeds and wood cuttings and—after the samples pass through federal and state inspection sites—propagate them at the USDA’s Wolfskill Experimental Orchards in Winters, California. This 70-acre varietal library, operated in conjunction with a test nursery at the University of California at Davis, is home to two “copies” each of several thousand plant accessions, many collected on excursions like this one. Aradhya himself has brought home some 500 of them on four trips to Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan.

Still, the collection, part of the National Clonal Germplasm Repository program, has its holes. Aradhya wants, for example, new rootstock varieties of pistachio, a blight-resistant walnut and figs sweet enough to sell yet sturdy enough to handle the bumpy rigors of post-harvest transportation—and all may exist in the orchards, villages and wild lands of Georgia.

The scientist is still jet-lagged by a 24-hour spell of travel when he visits a farmers market in the Gldani District of Tbilisi, the nation’s capital. Following behind two fruit geneticists from the Georgian Institute of Horticulture, Viticulture and Oenology, Aradhya eyes the heaps of apples, plums, nuts and figs with the discerning attention of, well, a fruit geneticist.

“There is tremendous variation here,” he says to his associates, David Maghradze and Zviadi Bobokashvili. Aradhya purchases several pounds of a small yellow peach and records the date, location of collection and name of accession on the small canvas sack.

“The fruit is worthless, but this could be good rootstock,” Aradhya tells me. The peaches'’ seeds, which may spend up to three years undergoing evaluation at a federal agency in Maryland, may eventually be sprouted in Davis and could someday supply plant breeders with the material to develop new rootstock varieties. He buys plums and almonds for the same reason: their seeds may contain genes for such traits such as pest, drought or heat resistance—all likely to be valuable assets in a coming century of climate change fallout.

We see a pyramidal stack of huge, green figs. Some are so ripe they have squashed, their raspberry red insides leaking through splits in their velvety skins. Aradhya doesn’t recognize this variety. He kneels to examine the fruits. They may not be suitable for long-distance shipping, a logistical factor problematic in the California fig industry, but they have one fetching component: Aradhya turns several over and shows me the eyeholes, or ostioles, on their undersides. “They’re tiny,” he points out. The openings are so small that ants could barely squeeze through. This means less pest infestation and less damage from mold that insects and wind may carry into to the ripening fruit.

“I want this fig,” he says to Maghradze. “Can you ask where the trees are?”

For the seeds alone will not do. Planted, they will produce trees similar but not identical to their two parent trees. What Aradhya wants are clones, and that means wood. Maghradze speaks with the vendor, but the man is just a city trader; he doesn’t know who grew the fruit.


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