When I was very young, it was unheard of to harvest nuts in my climate. This week I have been harvesting Carpathian walnuts. A friend in California called them the best tasting walnuts she has ever eaten. The tree was planted 31 years ago as a seedling that was grown by Les Shandrew, a childhood friend of my grandfather. Les is the boy shown in the photo irrigating the field with his father Sylvester. The irrigation ditches in my community were originally dug by hand and horsepower. The ditch crews developed a habit of planting the apple seeds from their lunches into the soil next to the canal. It has been 150 years since my village started digging canals. There are “wild” apple trees growing every few hundred yards along the entire length of our canal systems. The trees and/or their descendants are still providing an abundance of fruit for the community.
The apple trees are genetically diverse as expected from seed grown plants. There are early apples, and late apples. There are tart apples, and bland apples. Some of the fruits are highly attractive to apple maggots, some of them are immune. One of the trees is my favorite apple ever. It matures in early summer. It has blotchy red fruit that is super fragrant and very tasty: the perfect blend of sweet and tart. I really need to work on my tree grafting skills. I tried three years to graft a scion from it onto other apple trees. This year I had many grafts take for other varieties, but alas not for my favorite. I expect to keep trying until one survives.
I am also growing a pear tree that was grown from a seed by Les. I had to learn how to use the pear appropriately because it has a bitter skin. The bitterness fades when the pears are super soft and ripe, but if I want to eat a semi-ripe pear I peel them because the bitterness is only skin deep. The really nice thing about the bitter skin is that it is repulsive to insects, so I can grow the fruits organically and not have insect blemishes on the fruits. The fruits fall from the tree when they are still green, so I pick them and ripen them on the countertop. The pear has become one of my favorite trees. It’s not like every other pear. It has its own quirks. My caretaking skills have evolved to accommodate the quirky nature of the tree. It feels really good.
I have continued my community’s tradition of growing fruit and nut trees from seeds. Volunteer walnut trees sprout prolifically in the yard. Instead of treating them as weeds, I treat them as a valuable source of genetically-diverse locally-adapted walnuts. I share the seeds and seedlings with the community for planting. Winter hardiness is an important trait for nut trees in my area because we are near the outer edge of the plants ability to survive. I am able to screen hundreds of volunteer trees per year for winter hardiness. It may be many years before we can evaluate nut quality. If any turn out bad we have the option of grafting.
I consider myself to be part of a multi-generational project to develop locally-adapted survival-of-the-fittest landraces of fruit and nut trees. There is a thriving sub-culture that continues the village tradition of growing fruit and nut trees from seeds. Each generation the offspring are selected for better growth, higher production, and increased winter hardiness.
When I was very young, it was unheard of to harvest nuts in my climate. This fall we harvested walnuts, hazels, and pistachios: All of them from genetically-diverse seed-grown plants that have become localized enough to have passed the survival-of-the fittest test for our valley. I expect that if the tradition continues - of growing landrace fruits and nuts from seeds - that my great-grandchildren will be harvesting many additional types of fruits and nuts that are currently unavailable to me. This is part of the reason why I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.
Joseph Lofthouse grows vegetables in a cold mountain valley where he practices the art of landrace gardening in order to feed his community more effectively.
Photo by Terri Shandrew