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Let's Grow Something Weird 

Carrying on Luther Burbank's legacy, the Rare Fruit Growers exist at horticulture's edge of experimentalism

click to enlarge MICHAEL AMSLER

"This is an amazing world when you get into plants," says Phil Pieri, approaching a Japanese raisin tree. "This tree produces a flower, kind of a long-stemmed thing. When you pick the flower and eat it, it tastes just like raisins."

A member of the California Rare Fruit Growers of the Redwood Empire, Pieri has Illinois peaches and Pakistani mulberry, Japanese plums, Argentinean ombu, Washington navel oranges and 10 kinds of dragonfruit from who-knows-where. He's also got Mexican grande avocados planted from seeds from Luther Burbank's farm in Sebastopol. But his favorite fruits are native to California. "Peaches," he says when asked. "I love peaches, and a good pluot." Between bites of the latter picked from his tree, with juice dripping down his chin, he exclaims, "Oh, delicious!"

It may seem odd to scour the globe for fruit that may or may not thrive in the local Mediterranean climate. But Pieri and his fellow rare fruiters consider cultivating, grafting and trading rare fruit trees a tribute to the fertile land, affable climate and agricultural heritage of the North Bay. He has over 300 different varieties of fruit on his one-acre plot in rural Sebastopol, some kept in a greenhouse to escape the coolness that can harm the more tropical varieties, like che or white sapote.

click to enlarge WORKIN' MAN Phil Pieri in his orchard. - MICHAEL AMSLER

The growers are varied in focus. Some, like Pieri, specialize in exotic fruits. Others are passionate about preserving heirloom species like the Fort Ross Gravenstein, the original apple brought to Fort Ross when Russian settlers arrived about 150 years ago. "We're trying to perpetuate the variety," explains Pieri. "It's a Gravenstein, basically. I hope it's good, I haven't tasted it. This is the first year it's had anything on it."

Contrary to Burbank's mission of innovation, Pieri says the Rare Fruit Growers focus on preserving what's already known. "I don't develop new varieties; I take the old varieties, things that don't normally grow around here, you don't see in the store," Pieri says. "That's what our group is all about. We're kind of like Johnny Appleseed, you might say. We want to perpetuate and protect the rare varieties that aren't sold commercially and that you don't see very often from disappearing. And a lot of them have already."

The beloved Gravenstein might be next. According to the Rare Fruit Growers, Sonoma County's Gravenstein orchards have declined by almost 7,000 acres in the past 60 years, down to about 960 acres. "There are probably, worldwide, about 10,000 varieties of apples," says Pieri. "About three or four thousand of those have already disappeared—that are recorded already. You can't find them anymore, they're not there."

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