Sat, Nov 26 2011 12:00 PM Posted By: Susan Walter
"California, the land of eternal sunshine!" "San Diego county, a perfect climate for every crop!” “Chula Vista, Lemon Capitol of the World!” The agricultural boosters of our region made regular claims like these.
In 1894 a map was produced by the San Diego Land and Town Company, which listed “lemons, oranges, grapefruits, or deciduous fruits” planted on blocks either already under private ownership or available for purchase. There were approximately 72 blocks, each which comprised 40 acres.
Curious, I perused “A History of Subtropical Fruits and Nuts in California” by Harry M. Butterfield. Its stated goal was to summarize the history of those “subtropical fruits and nuts” that have “succeeded and…failed in California,” and to look at the earliest “growers and their efforts.”
Of course, I specifically wanted to see the South County introductions, and I found three: an olive, a lemon, and a cherimoya.
Certainly the olive was one of the earliest of the major orchard crops here. In his diaries Frank Kimball noted the condition of the San Diego Mission olive trees that he examined in 1867. Around 1872 Frank obtained cuttings from those trees, which he called the Mission variety. His beloved olive trees inspired the name Olivewood, the name of his ranch in National City.
Kimball set up a major commercial olive processing mill. The mill pressed the olives for their oil. His product was as high in quality as other sources, but European imported olive oil was cheaper, and undercut the local market.
Unfazed, Kimball and other California growers turned to olive fruit production. Olives are not eaten fresh from the tree. Fresh olives are bitter, and must be pickled or preserved in brine to be edible. Originally, olives were stored in barrels, kegs and crocks, with open lids, but by 1900 producers in San Diego County successfully canned ripe locally grown olives.
There were three other major early olive varieties present before the turn of the 20th century: the Ascolano, Manzanillo, and Sevillano. Other early, lesser grown varieties included the Amallau, Cucco, Frantojo, Lucques, Macrocarpa, Nevadillo, Obliza, Pendulina, Polymorpha, Rouget, Rubra, Saint Agostino, and Uvaria. Our South Bay orchardists tried all of these varieties. Some of the very early olive tree plantings still survive in National City.
The Agnes variety of lemon was credited as introduced by – again – Frank Kimball in National City in the 1880s. Other major local lemon crops included the Lisbon and the Eureka. The first person credited with planting citrus on a Chula Vista property was Professor Henry who had retired here from the University of Wisconsin. His orchard featured the Eureka variety of lemon.
I love the National City Record’s little editorial of December 12, 1889:
"The Record is pleased to note that the Riverside papers concede the superiority of the San Diego bay region as a lemon raising country…. That is a square deal and a commendable exhibition of brotherly love. We’ll stick to the lemons if they’ll stick to the oranges, and we’ll all be happy, you bet!"
Before 1900 other lemons grown here included the Acme, Asiatic, Benoa, Bonnie Brae, Boulton, Garcelon’s Knobby, Olivia, Prior Lisbon, Sicily, Sweet, and Villa France. Later introductions included the Armstrong Seedless, Frost Eureka, Meyer, Pink-Fleshed, and Ponderosa (aka American Wonder). National City and Chula Vista had many wonderful lemon tree orchards, and I’ve heard there is an original lemon tree from the SDL&TCo plantings still growing in Chula Vista.
And now for the cherimoya. This was one of many exotic fruits that caught the attention of local orchardists. The “cherimoya apple” was grown in California at least as early as the 1880s. It never caught on, and was described as a “not important” crop in the report by Butterfield.
One variety, though, was introduced in 1928 by “William H. Sallman (sic) and J.E. Coit of Chula Vista.” Apparently they were somewhat successful, because they expanded their operation in 1931 for commercial production. I do not know of any early cherimoya trees in South Bay; but I’ve eaten from 120-year-old cherimoya trees still growing in La Mesa.
Are you familiar with this fruit? You can often find them for sale in markets that cater to our local Mexican and Filipino populations. They are green, with a scale patterned exterior, and the interior has a cream colored custard like texture, and a heavenly flavor. One in my yard produces dozens of fruits. We salivate waiting for them to ripen.
Locally though, all of the fruits commonly found today in the supermarkets—and a great many exotics as well—were also grown here. The 1890s property I live at started out as a lemon orchard with a drive lined with date palms, but it also has had apricot, guavas, kumquat, lemon, litchi, loquats, mulberries, orange, peach, plums, pomegranate, and tangerine.
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