What sort of folks immerse themselves in the world of rare fruit?
According to Neitzel, “Quite a few of the club members seem to be well educated.”
I ask Kotnik, “Are rare-fruit growers a bunch of old hippies?”
“You really can’t peg a political persuasion on it,” he says. “We’re concerned about the environment, sure. But plenty of people will still use a synthetic chemical fertilizer or sprays. It depends on who you talk to. Del Hotal is also a licensed pesticide applicator — he’s a nurseryman. Speaking for myself, I’m not diametrically opposed to using anything that’s synthetic, but I prefer not to.”
(Alice Snow, another rare-fruit grower, says, “Some members would put DDT on your head if they could get fruit out of it.”)
Jon Verdick, who operates Encanto Farms, a nursery in the South Bay, says that local rare-fruit enthusiasts are like “the rest of society, everything from doctors and lawyers, straight-laced people to people who would probably be classified as cranks and weirdos.”
Are the California Rare Fruit Growers the most fanatical growers?
“Not necessarily,” Verdick says. “I think if you went to the rose society, the dahlia society, you’d find a lot more hard-core people that are really Nazis about what they’re doing.”
Verdick specializes in two fruits, figs and bananas. His fig collection numbers a staggering 800 varieties, with 1200 total trees; his goal is two of each. It includes such rarities as the ‘violette de Bordeaux’, a small fig with dark purple flesh, the ‘black Madeira’, and the ‘panache’, which is adorned with yellow and green stripes. Verdick notes that there is almost no commercial production of figs in San Diego County, and that the fresh figs in local stores — common varieties are ‘brown turkey’, ‘kadota’, and mission — come from the San Joaquin Valley. Figs are a good fit here. “If you can grow a citrus tree, you can grow a fig tree without any problem. There are trees in Point Loma just blocks from the water [a tougher climate] to the far side of El Cajon.”
Intermingled with the figs, sharing the 1/5th-acre patch, are bananas — around 100 cultivars. I challenge Verdick, “Can the average person really grow bananas in San Diego?”
He answers with a measured affirmative. “You do have to actually take care of the plant. They are a little water- and fertilizer-heavy compared to a lot of other things. [But] if you drive around in places like Point Loma, Loma Portal, you’ll see patches of bananas that have been growing for years. Most of them haven’t been properly cared for — so they’ll grow a lot of plant, but they seldom fruit — because people don’t put the investment into them, the inputs of water or fertilizer.”
He does admit that “a fair number of varieties, including the ubiquitous grocery-staple, the ‘Cavendish’, would do better in a less-cold climate. Once you get a lot of temps below 50 at night, they lose vigor.” When I queried Verdick about growing a conventional banana here, he sounded a slight note of contempt for so pedestrian an endeavor: “Frankly, if that’s all you’re looking for, I wouldn’t go to the trouble to grow it; you can get those a lot cheaper in the store.” He’s a staunch supporter of obscure cultivars. “If you’re growing a ‘misi luki’, or Honduran varieties like the ‘Goldfinger’, it’s clearly a banana but it’s a different taste and a far better taste.” The ‘misi luki’ is about half the size of a ‘Cavendish’ but looks same both outside and inside.
If bananas seem outlandish in San Diego, macadamia nuts may seem odder still; most folks outside of Hawaii view them as a rare, costly treat. But Kotnik says that the trees, which can top out at 30–40 feet or more, are “all over the place” in San Diego.
Neitzel, who numbers the macadamia among his favorites, claims that San Diego’s climate is perfect for the iconic Hawaiian crop. “Macadamia is very drought-tolerant. It’s native to Australia, where it’s known as the Queensland Nut. I bought my Encanto property in 1970, and the first thing I did, I got all excited about macadamia nuts. I planted too many, ten different cultivars.” Although Neitzel is recognized as a San Diego macadamia expert, he is just as well known for his work with other fruits, including the ‘Big Jim’ loquat and the ‘el sabor’ and ‘big sister’ cherimoyas, three cultivars he’s created.
Unlike Neitzel, Kotnik, 34, is a relative newcomer (circa 2008) to the obsession. “I’m an expert learner. I got into soils first. I’d bought a house and had a neighbor who said, ‘I water it, I want to eat it.’”
Like many of the rare-fruit growers I’ve met, Kotnik has plantings up and down the rare-fruit continuum, including cherimoyas — such as a ‘White’ cultivar to which he’s grafted about eight other varieties; mangos (such as the small yellow ‘Ataulfo’ variety); and dozens more. Young plants are in every corner of the back yard: ‘Arava’ sweet melon — a honeydew/cantaloupe cross; coffee bushes; obscure apple rootstocks; and papaya seedlings, of which, he says, “I’m about five years from harvesting quite a bit of bounty.”
When I mention that I’m a pepper-head, he shows me tepin pepper plants from seeds. Much hotter than a jalapeño, and somewhat hotter than a serrano (but not as hot as a habanero), they look like tiny bell peppers, red now before drying. I take some home in a bag and use them on all kinds of things; I find them pleasantly potent. For a contrast, Kotnik offers up ‘blueberry’, the misty cultivar. It’s subtly sweet, with lavender-like flavor. I wouldn’t have thought you could grow a blueberry this good in San Diego.
When I walk over to Kotnik’s mini–banana plantation, the first things I notice are the showy purple flowers, maybe seven inches long by five inches wide, resembling artichoke or eggplant. There are ten trees — actually five pairs consisting of a main tree and a satellite or sidekick. Kotnik, in his casually pedagogical manner, explains: “You start out with one tree. The living part of the plant is called the corum, and it’s underground. After a while, it sends up companions called pups.” The immature bananas, 15–20 to a hand (bunch), are three or four inches long and one inch in diameter. They look like okra. Kotnik says they’re blue ‘Javas’. When ripe, they’ll be shorter and stubbier than a ‘Cavendish’, but their flesh will be a little whiter, softer, and sweeter.