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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

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Graft Jam

Everyone enjoys fruit, but not everyone has acres of land to plant it. How can one grow multiple varieties of fruit trees on an apartment balcony? Simply stick a branch from one tree into the branch of another and let nature do the rest.

Rare-fruiter Keith Borglum describes grafting this way: "If we cut your finger off and graft it onto him, it's your meat, so it's gonna grow and look and be like you."

The graftee in the example chuckles, adding, "Unless I reject you and it falls off."

The possibilities of grafting are restricted only to the amount of fruit in one family. One rare-fruit member reportedly has taken this to the extreme, with a hundred varieties on one tree (he calls it a "fruit salad tree"). But it's not uncommon to have around 10 different varieties on one strong rootstock. It saves space, and provides the ability to trade and try new varieties with minimal effort.

Passion for the Unusual

Pieri has such a wide variety of pears fruiting at different times of the year that he can pick tree-ripened fruit in his backyard in almost any season. His sour cherry tree produces fruit so red it looks radioactive. And there's sorbus, a small, persimmon-like fruit that ferments in its own skin. "You wait until it falls to the ground and turns brown and all mushy and ugly as sin, and you taste it; I like it," says Pieri, implying that he's in the minority. "That's when it's fermented and you can actually taste the alcohol." Not quite enough to bother trying to get drunk, he says, "but enough to tell it's there."

click to enlarge TO THE CORE Phil Pieri specializes in uncommon fruits like the pink pearl apple, shown. - MICHAEL AMSLER
  • Michael Amsler
  • TO THE CORE Phil Pieri specializes in uncommon fruits like the pink pearl apple, shown.

Though he has a plenty of peculiar fruit, Pieri is known to some as "the babaco guy." Babaco is a papaya relative with melony flesh and a unique, semi-sweet and slightly acidic flavor. He's tried to introduce babaco to area markets like the Berkeley Bowl and to chefs, including John Ash, but to no avail. "People are not used to it; they didn't care for it, it just didn't go over," he says of the Ecuadorian delight. "I was trying to find out if it would be commercial, and I don't think so, here."

That's not his main focus, though. "I don't try and sell them," says Pieri. "I don't have the time or the inclination. I just grow them, and most of them just go over the fence to the cows."

So why even bother? For Pieri, the process is as important as the end result. "It's kind of a passion with me," he says. "I just like to grow things."

The Rare Fruit Grower's annual Festival of Fruit, this year combined with the National Heirloom Expo, takes place Tuesday-Thursday, Sept. 11–13, at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. $10 daily; $25 three-day pass. The rare fruit growers host tours and a welcoming reception on Sept. 10. See and

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