Across the sun-drenched country, as far as the eye can see in the river-valley lowlands between the mountains, live armies of clones—millions and millions of fruit trees, each almost identical to every other nearby tree of its kind. These are the orchards of California's Central Valley, fruit basket of America and one of the most fertile and wealthy agricultural regions in the world. Peaches, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, grapes and many more fruits are harvested here for eight months of the year—but what this productive region has in sheer volume it largely lacks in diversity. For just several varieties of each species constitute the bulk of the state's produce market, and the Central Valley's fruit orchards are, to use that dirty word of the agricultural cognoscenti, vast and unapologetic monocultures.
But tucked away on the western edge of this great valley is a small but glittering treasure—a farm containing almost a planet's worth of biodiversity. Many have likened it to a Noah's Ark of the world's tree fruits, while those attuned to the vernacular of plant genetics call the site, located in Winters, California, a germplasm repository. Operated by the federal government with American tax dollars, Wolfskill Experimental Orchard includes more than 6,000 types of plants. Thousands of grape varieties, with two specimens of each vine, grow on the premises, as do hundreds of varieties each of walnuts, olives, peaches and almonds. Mulberries are grown here, too, and kiwis, and plums, and persimmons, and pistachios. And perhaps best of all, the Wolfskill Experimental Orchard is a public resource. Seeing the site by appointment, tasting fruit harvested by the staff and requesting wood for propagation are all welcomed.
And perhaps best of all, the Wolfskill Experimental Orchard is open to the public. Seeing the site, tasting the fruit and borrowing wood for propagation are all welcomed.
The best time to visit this remarkable farm is during one of the site's annual tasting events. Most recently, Wolfskill's managers hosted the always popular Fig Day. This annual September gathering draws farmers, hobbyists and general fig lovers from around California and even the country to taste across a spectrum of unusual figs, hear several short lectures on the various species grown at the Wolfskill property and tour the orchard itself. Howard Garrison, Wolfskill's orchard manager and one of the chief fig experts in the state, had assembled a tasting table of sliced and diced figs of several varieties. Among them were the Calimyrna, the large and popular yellow-skinned fig imported from Turkey in the 1800s; the absurdly beautiful supermodel of the species—the Panache, or tiger-striped, fig; the fudgy-fleshed Santa Cruz Dark; the highly regarded Black Madeira; and the elegantly stemmed Pied de Boeuf (means "cow-foot" fig in French). Garrison also served platters of large green Excel figs wrapped with bacon and, for the vegetarians, just stuffed with goat cheese. Finally, Garrison delivered a brief talk on figs, their history and their botany. Among the scores of guests, one had brought with him a shoebox containing several show-and-tell figs of the most bizarre sort anyone present had seen. Harvested from a single, decades-old tree in Ventura County, this mystery fig, with its extremely elongated stem, delicate skin and honey-like flesh, baffled every geneticist, collector, farmer and hobbyist who had a close look. It was also a giant, with at least one fig from the tree weighing more than half a pound.
Fig Day 2012 also included an adjacent grape display and discussion arranged by Wolfskill's grape horticulturalist, Bernie Prins. Prins had selected a half dozen of the 3,600-plus grape types in the orchard—almost all of them ripe and ready. Selections included the Kyoho grape, a Japanese giant about the size of a golf ball with a black skin; a golden brown, elongated hybrid grape that tasted faintly of chocolate and melon; and the show-stealing Black Hamburg, a musky, perfumey grape as shiny as obsidian.
A variety of tasting events are held at Wolfskill each year, and those who gag at the thought of figs (many people do) may take interest instead in the November persimmon and pomegranate tasting, the January kiwi tasting and the June mulberry and peach tasting. Visit their website to inquire about directions and the calendar of events—and if you go, don't forget some cash for the donation pot.
But Wolfskill Experimental Orchard is not simply a venue for fruit-tasting events. The site is a public resource. John Preece, a USDA horticulturalist and researcher, told the small crowd before the tasting, "What we do here is preserve heirloom plants so they don't go extinct, and then we make them available to anyone in the world who requests [wood for grafting or propagating] free of charge." Farmers and gardeners may also submit online requests for wood cuttings by variety.
And John Baum, a member of the California Rare Fruit Growers, also took a moment to speak to the fig and grape tasters. "When you get home today, write to your congressmen and senators and tell them to support these operations," Baum said. "Because there are people who think these collections should be run by private industries, and if industries controlled them, they would bulldoze up all the trees, because all they want are the market varieties."
Which would leave us in a world of mostly black mission and brown Turkey figs—two industry staples of California. We might lose the huge and decadent black Zidi fig; the almost seedless, jelly-fleshed Mary Lane fig; the favorite cold-weather fig of Northwest gardeners, the green-skinned Desert King; and that supermodel of them all, the Panache.
Other fruit tastings:
Olives. A variety of events occur year-round in California.
Citrus. January, at UC Riverside.
Cherimoyas. February, at UC Irvine.
Strawberries. March, at UC Irvine.
Avocados. August, at UC Irvine.
Apples. Not an official tasting, but the USDA, which manages a huge apple collection in Geneva, New York, will be offering an open field day on September 22, where several apple varieties may be tasted.
What other tastings did we miss? Tell us about them in the comment box below.
The United States government has compiled a tremendous range of the existing diversity in many of the world's cultivated food plant species—almost comprehensive, but not quite. That is, many varieties (or "genetic material," as collectors often refer to their quarry) remain undiscovered in faraway places and uncollected. This means that the most exotic, most wonderful fruit tasting of all may be the one you host yourself while traveling. Want pomegranates? Go to Montenegro or Albania, where mountainsides are covered with wild pomegranates. Want grapes? Hike through the vine-draped forests of formerly Soviet Georgia. Want mangoes? The jungles of Borneo are thick with untasted varieties. Want figs? Try cycling through Greece, the Balkans or Turkey, one eye ever on the roadside.