Organic farming pioneer, Amigo Cantisano, is carrying on the work of Felix Gillet, the father of perennial agriculture in the West. The discovery of 100-year-old orchards has saved a wealth of fruit and nut genetics
ARTY: Who is Felix Gillet and why is he important?
AMIGO: Felix Gillet was an early settler of the gold country in Nevada City, California. He was a Frenchman who migrated back and forth to the United States numerous times as a sailor from northern France. He settled in Nevada City around 1859, where he opened the first barbershop. During the early 1860s, he spent a year in France making contacts and learning about the nursery trade, and then came back and used his earnings from his barbershop to purchase a piece of property and start importing plants originally from France and eventually from about 40 countries. He would bring things in that were already well known and popular to some degree in their home country, and he would test them here. The best of them he would release to farmers and gardeners.
From 1871 until his death in 1908, he ran one of the first nurseries in the West, and was extremely active at propagating, breeding and importing hundreds of varieties. From our research, he can be justly described as the father of the West Coast perennial agriculture. He brought most of the nuts, fruits, grapes, berries, etc., that are now commonly grown in the United States.
His main introductions are walnuts, almonds, chestnuts, filberts, prune plums, the European culinary plum, cherries, pears, apples, figs, strawberries, raspberries, Bing cherry, French prunes and others.
In one of his catalogs, he had 241 varieties of grapes. He brought in wine grapes, table grapes, and raisin grapes, all of which formed the industries. Felix brought in almost all the common varieties that we grow and use today. When you drink Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon or Petite Syrah or Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, those are French varieties, or when you eat what’s now called a Thompson seedless grape or raisin, that is a French variety that came originally from Afghanistan.
Gillet kept researching and inventing and developing and hybridizing his own things, and some became very successful. So, pretty much everything that we eat in the perennial crops, except for citrus and olives, we can thank Gillet for. He did asparagus and artichokes and hops and raspberry and rhubarb, the whole nine yards.
He was really focused on edibles, but he also did a fair amount of ornamentals as well. We were working with the Rose Society and a whole bunch of the heirloom roses turned out to have come from him. He brought about 40 to 50 different varieties of heirloom roses into the United States. He was interested in pretty much anything that would grow well in the Gold Country of the Sierra foothills.
He’d also send plants to other parts of the country to see how well they grew. He provided information to USDA regularly about how these different plants grew. He is credited with starting the filbert/hazelnut industry of Oregon.
A now retired chief horticulturalist for the state of Oregon at Oregon State University came here in the ‘60s, tracing back the history of the nut industry and such in Oregon and the Northwest, and he traced the entire nut, prune, chestnut industries, walnuts, filberts, and wine grapes, all those crops right back to Nevada City, to Gillet’s nursery.
Gillet sent plants all over. We have receipts for stuff he shipped to Russia and Michigan and the Southeast and all over California and all over the Northwest. He was very active. He brought in Nonpareil almond that is still the standard of the almond business a hundred plus years later.
ARTY: In Nevada City and Grass Valley are there still trees from his nursery that are thriving?
AMIGO: All through the Sierras are the remnants of mining from the 1850s to the 1880s; miners had to eat, so they brought plants of their own to supplement stuff that they would buy.
I started picking an orchard with a group of friends in 1970. We guessed that the trees were really old, but we didn’t know, at that time, that they were planted in the 1880s and came from Felix Gillet’s nursery. They were thriving. Other than the bears attacking, they were absolutely indestructible. They were at 5,500 feet. They bloomed and survived through the frost and the freezes and snows and droughts. They weren’t irrigated at all for at least the last 75 years, and they grew great apples and pears and walnuts and prunes.
Since then I’ve been documenting these plants all over the Sierra foothills and Sacramento Valley. There are literally hundreds of sites, farms, homesteads, ranches, and town sites that still have these plants growing really thrift-fully. They are true Permaculture plants. In most cases, they get no care by human beings and they are really hardy. Weather permitting, they produce amazing crops.
We have been cataloguing these and identifying them as best we can by variety, and when possible, tracing back the history of them, because sometimes they’re on a homestead that’s got its entire history still intact. One of the places we work on is a state park that is an old mining town, and it has all its history, so we’re able to document the era of these plants. There are literally thousands of them.
As people get more aware of this, they contact us and say, “Hey, do you know about that old pear orchard down over here?” I just learned about one at another mining camp at 5,000 feet in upper Nevada County that has apples that were famous enough that in the 1890s, they were shipped to a tsar in Russia. Apples originate from the Caucus Mountains in Russia, but for some reason, hundreds of years later, these apples were coming from California.
These old orchards had to get established with water, so those are typically where there are creeks or river nearby, or where there are the remnants of mining irrigation ditches. If you follow those around, all of a sudden you find an old homestead, and here are three, five, ten or 50 trees.
ARTY: Are all the varieties identified?
AMIGO: That’s one of the challenges. There aren’t very many identification keys, there are for some of the nuts- drawings or pictures, but for a lot of the fruits it’s difficult. I’ve been working with USDA doing DNA testing, which is able to identify some, but the parent material of the DNA that the USDA has is lacking. So, they oftentimes say, “Well, it might be this or it’s got a few genes of that, but we don’t have that variety in our inventory.”
We have a whole bunch of varieties that they don’t have. They’re really interested in putting them into the germplasm station outside of Davis, as part of a preservation project.
ARTY: How did Felix Gillet breed for resilience, and why is that important?
AMIGO: Gillet was a really keen observer. Nevada City, California is almost 3,000 feet elevation, and he grew his trees in his original orchard and nursery on some very poor soil. He even bragged that if they survived on his poor soil at his difficult site, where it gets lots of snow and lots of frosts and lots of rain- typically, we get 60, 70 inches of rain in an average year sometimes more and a lot of freezes- then they’re pretty hardy. He’d bring these plants in and grow them out three, five, eight, ten years, and evaluate them and say, “Well, this plant does really good in this climate, or, no, it doesn’t do so well here, let’s send it up to Oregon and see how it does.”
Then he started taking the best of those plants with their heartiness for root rot, disease resistance, or late blooming so they miss frost, or disease resistance on the foliage or the fruit, and selecting that and crossing and breeding those until he got favorable combinations of culinary quality as well as disease or insect resistance or heartiness.
This took a long time. He was doing it for over 40 years. Some of these things take ten or fifteen years for traits to become apparent between the breeding and then the planting out. He created quite a few crosses that have stood the test of time. We are providing some of Gillet’s plant material to nurseries to do their own breeding with it, because it has the genetic hardiness. For example, the cherry industry is plagued by all kinds of diseases now, and the average field life of a cherry orchard is about 20 years, but we have cherry trees documented at 130 years old. They have hardiness and genes that are useful to cherry breeders.
That’s what Gillet was doing. He was doing it a hundred years ago, but we’re still in the process. We need to keep using these old genetics as a base to do the breeding for the future.
ARTY: How is your project carrying on Felix Gillet’s work?
Six years ago a few friends and I formed the Felix Gillet Institute. We have been collecting and propagating some of the best trees from Gillet’s nursery for 40 years, as well as documenting information. I now have about 800 fruit and nut trees, and about a couple of hundred grapes and figs. It’s probably close to a thousand plants we’ll have for sale next winter, if all goes well.
Gillet was a prolific writer. We’re in the process of collecting all of that to put on a website. It’s going to take a few more years to get it all collected.
We just keep going out finding and gathering things and adding them to the collection.
Each of our trees comes with a sort of a pedigree background describing where it came from and how the person collecting them is going to be involved in prolonging and expanding this genetic diversity.
We are working with nurseries to get some of this plant material back into the propagation role, and with the USDA and our local farm advisor on evaluating and trying to identify these plants. We also worked with our local cities. We had an ordinance passed in Nevada City that prevents anyone from cutting down a tree that apparently is a Felix Gillet tree without having been first identified and/or some propagation made off of it to extend its life if the tree needs to be cut down. We’re working on that with our county right now. We’ve been doing a lot of talks and fruit tastings.
Bit by bit we’re collecting all this data, and then we will make it available so people can see what he did and use it both for a history lesson and for an ecology/sociology lesson, as well as to grow really good foods and keep them in production. It’s like taking the idea of heirloom tomatoes and moving it into the perennial world and appreciating the benefits and traits of heirloom perennials.
I’m having fun doing it. Sometimes you meet an old timer that says, “Oh, yeah, my great grandfather planted that.” You get all this history when you go to these old sites, and get to eat and propagate the best ones.
The website’s not up yet. If people are interested, they can send me an email. firstname.lastname@example.org and our phone is 530-292-3619 and our address is Felix Gillet Institute, P.O. Box 942, North San Juan, California 95960.
This has pretty much been done just out of my own pocket for the last 30 years. Anyone that has some interest in supporting us, we are a nonprofit and we can provide a tax donation receipt and also give trees to donors or give a significant discount.