apricots

Hello I’m Andrea Castillo and this is Seasonal, a newsletter that connects you to the Bay Area food system, one fruit and vegetable at a time. Seasonal comes out twice per month, and each post highlights the most interesting aspects of one seasonal fruit or vegetable grown and harvested around the Bay Area. Find me on Instagram at @seasonalbayarea or e-mail me at seasonal@substack.com to share your feedback and suggestions, I’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to unsubscribe, click the gray unsubscribe link at the bottom of this post.

This week we nerd out on apricots (available May-July).

Most of the commercially-grown fruit around the Bay Area is non-native (including the blueberry: native to North America, but not to California), and the apricot is no exception. In the early 20th century, millions of pounds of apricots grew in the southern Bay Area but before 1760 there were a total of zero apricot trees in all of California.

How did the apricot go from zero to prolific in just a 240-year span? And why were there so many apricot trees in this part of the Bay Area?

The apricot is at the heart of California’s history and its journey starts with thousands of years of travel and a final piggyback on Christianity’s mission to convert all. 

origin story

The apricot is a 4000 year old fruit, originally cultivated in Central Asia and China, that eventually found its way to the Middle East and Europe. When the Romans encountered the apricot, they dubbed it the “precious one” because it flowers early in the summer—well before many other fruit trees. Centuries later, when the Moors conquered the Iberian peninsula, they planted apricot orchards (among other crops) around modern-day Spain. These mediterranean trees were the ancestors of all the Bay Area’s apricot orchards. 

on a mission

In the mid 1700s, when the Spanish claimed the land of the indigenous people who lived throughout present-day California, they established Christian missions with edible gardens. The missions had two main purposes: to forcibly convert indigenous people and to provide food for the new settlements.

In 1769, the first Europeans arrived to the south Bay Area and admired the Santa Clara Valley’s fertile terrain. A decade later, Padre Junipero Serra (if you drive a lot in Sunnyvale, work at the Infinite Loop Apple campus, or have watched Black Mirror, this name may ring a bell) sailed west on an expedition from the mediterranean island of Majorca where apricot orchards abounded. Padre Serra brought over apricot seeds or small seedlings in barrels to California and missionaries planted the precious trees on the Santa Clara mission garden. 

The Santa Clara mission had to be relocated a few times because the first site flooded and the padres were not exactly master gardeners. Still, by 1792 the apricots took root—they liked their new lush home. With limited native edible fruit trees in California, the apricots—as well as other imported fruit trees—delighted the padres and surprised the 10,000 local Ohlone who lived around the Santa Clara Valley. This surprise, however, came at a price: with their gardens and imported cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats, missions promised a stable food source, but at the expense of making native game and flora more scarce. This scarcity gave missions more control over the local food supply and made it easier for the Catholic Church to convert more indigenous people. 

threatening immigrants

The Church’s monopoly did not last long and sadly, the large majority of the local indigenous people died (mostly from imported small pox and measles epidemics). In the early 1830s, after Mexico declared its independence from Spain, it secularized the missions and seized them from the Church. Much of the mission land was given away or sold as ranchos and the new owners did not tend to the mission gardens, preferring to ranch instead. The Santa Clara mission garden was a rare exception because of its excellent climate and soil conditions—particularly well-suited to the finicky apricot.

The new ranches, while extensive, did not last long. Hoards of American pioneers with a thirst for farming moved west to California and threatened the Mexican ranching lifestyle with their permanent fences. In a little over a decade, the enterprising immigrants outnumbered the locals and farmed away to their heart’s content. What happened next paved the way for the apricot to take over the south Bay Area—as Robin Chapman describes in her fascinating book California Apricots: the Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley.

In 1846, tensions rose between the American settlers and the locals. In response, John C. Fremont and Ezekiel Merritt led the Bear Flag Revolt, which took place when a group of settlers took over a Mexican outpost in Sonoma and declared independence. They created the extremely short-lived California Republic: this unrecognized breakaway state became a United States territory three weeks after the Bear Flaggers declared their independence (at least Fremont and Merritt got some lingering name recognition!). Now that California was no longer a Mexican territory, it was even easier for Americans to move west. 

eureka

And then, prospectors discovered gold outside of Sacramento. In 1848, thousands upon thousands rushed to California and the population exploded. With more mouths to feed than ever before, fruits and vegetables became as valuable as the nuggets they were sifting for. To meet gold diggers’ demand for fresh food, entrepreneurial newcomers took over the established trees in the Santa Clara mission garden and started grocery markets practically overnight.

Others, like Robert Stockton—Stockton, CA’s namesake—used mission fruit trees to graft apples, peaches, pears, nectarines and apricots and started a nursery right outside of San José. He sold thousands of apricot trees, accelerating the conversion of ranch land to expansive fruit orchards.

Juicy, early season apricots from our CSA. Ripen apricots on the counter: once they’re a little soft they’re ready to eat. Store ripe apricots in the fridge if there are any left over.

real estate boom

At the close of the 19th century, demand for land went up as farmers flooded in, and Santa Clara Valley ranch owners sold off hundreds of acres. The new owners planted apricot and prune trees by the millions. In the span of a century, from 1870 to 1970, 200,000 acres of apricot orchards filled the Santa Clara valley and orchards spread almost as fast as silicon would from 1970 onward.

For a sense of scale, by 1950, the Santa Clara Valley was the largest fruit-producing valley in the world. If you hover over Moffet Field on Google Maps and compare it to an aerial shot of the same area in 1940, you can see how much land was devoted to agriculture. 

So, what happened to the millions of trees?

Similar to what happened in 1769, change happened. Land that had been used for hunting and gathering, grazing and ranching, and growing fruit trees, now was repurposed to house people.

The military bases the United States established in Sunnyvale during World War I and II attracted research institutions and private corporations that generated employment. In the late 1950s, scientists at Bell Labs invented the semiconductor and kickstarted the computer revolution. By 1970 more than one million people were living in Santa Clara county and profits shifted from orchards to computers. The low profits and long, arduous hours incentivized farm owners to sell their valuable land. Some even became real estate developers and made small fortunes. Apricot orchards moved to the San Joaquin Valley and the Santa Clara Valley area was paved over and filled with research parks, housing complexes, and corporate campuses. 

last trees standing

A few Santa Clara Valley orchards still remain in operation, though it’s not clear for how long. In Sunnyvale, there are 800 apricot trees left  at the Orchard Heritage Park (there used to be 9 million) and Charlie Olson, who has been farming there for 42 years, is still picking apricots. Their fruit stand opens in mid-June for only three weeks and I want to go on a short road trip to buy a few of Charlie’s fresh heritage Blenheim apricots and taste a bit of Bay Area history. In her blog, For the Love of Apricots, Lisa lists two more historic orchards in operation which would be fun to visit (if it’s safe to do so): Novakovich Orchards in Saratoga and Andy’s Orchard in Morgan Hill. If I end up going, I’ll post updates on Seasonal’s Instagram page.

Eating a fresh apricot is a rare treat. Apricots are picky trees and difficult to grow. Since the fruit does not travel well and bruises easily, the majority of apricots are dried or processed in other ways. If you have the chance to try a fresh local apricot from now through July, savor it. Use the moment to reflect on the origin story of the delicious fruit you’re enjoying. Ever since Padre Serra arrived in the Santa Clara Valley, the Bay Area landscape has transformed at an incredible pace.

Change is difficult and often painful, but it is also one of the few constants we cannot escape. In the words of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh:

We are often sad and suffer a lot when things change, but change and impermanence have a positive side. Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. Life itself is possible. If a grain of corn is not impermanent, it can never be transformed into a stalk of corn. If the stalk were not impermanent, it could never provide us with the ear of corn we eat. 

Thank you for nerding out with me (you may also enjoy nerding out on asparagus or onions). If you’ve already subscribed, thank you! If this email was forwarded to you and you'd like to sign up for the newsletter, click the button below:

Andrea Castillo is a food nerd who always wants to know the what’s, how’s, when’s, and why’s of the food she eats.