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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The three also look beyond civilization during the 17-day hunt, seeking wild fruit varieties not yet cultivated, and while touring the parched hills of eastern Georgia, Aradhya bags dozens of samples of almond seeds. One is a fantastic coconut-flavored almond from along a highway just outside the capital, a variety that could someday produce favored cultivars in California’s industry. The expedition also goes west, and along the rainy shores of the Black Sea, Aradhya collects some walnuts that may bear genetic armor against molds and blights. From backyard gardens, a roadside farm and an abandoned orchard in Tbilisi he collects wood from nine fig trees. (In one instance, a roadside fig vendor shows Aradhya the trees only after the scientist has paid for an entire four-pound basket of fruit.) And from a collection in Mtskheta in the final days of the tour he lands vine cuttings from 25 of Georgia’s indigenous wine and table grapes. In total, the expedition introduces more than 160 accessions new to American soil.

One morning we visit the Dezertiri bazaar in central Tbilisi. In every direction stand heaps of fruits unfamiliar to the New World. Piles of pear-sized green figs—perhaps never before tasted by an American—may or may not be of a variety we have already collected. Likely as not, they are all unique, but Aradhya has collected all the fig wood he can handle. He walks on, but a nut vendor’s vast stash 30 feet before the exit catches his eye. He samples a huge peanut-shaped nut from one of the bulk bins.

“That’s the best hazelnut I have ever tasted,” the American tells Bobokashvili, who negotiates for a sack of in-shell specimens. Aradhya finds some attractively large almonds among the bins. He buys a kilogram. Aradhya would like to acquire perfect clones—wood cut directly from the trees—but no one can direct us to the orchard of the almonds’ origin. Almond wood, too, is particularly prone to rapidly drying out before grafting. Seeds will have to do.

We leave the bazaar and walk into the parking lot under the blazing Georgian sun. Pomegranate and walnut trees spill over the fences. The pavement beneath a huge mulberry tree is still stained dark by the fallen fruits of the July crop. And from a crack in a concrete wall, a three-foot seedling fig tree has sprouted, a quiet reminder of Georgia’s fertility and its value as a center of botanical genetic diversity.

Aradhya holds the bag of nameless almonds in his hand as Maghradze opens the trunk of the car. “We may not get exact replicates of the tree,” the American says, sounding mostly satisfied. “But at least we have the genes.”


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