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Calif. Rare Fruit Growers Meet To Swap Seeds, Tips

Persimmon grower Jim Bathgate handed out tiny yellow peaches to others at the California Rare Fruit Growers' annual "Festival of Fruit" and watched with anticipation as they bit into the sweet and juicy flesh.

The fruit grew on a peach tree that sprouted accidentally in Bathgate's persimmon grove, and he eagerly collected the sticky pits to plant more.

Bathgate was one of hundreds of rare fruit aficionados gathered to share seeds, cuttings and knowledge. The organization founded in 1968 encourages gardeners and hobby farmers to plant unusual fruit instead of commonplace fare, such as apples and oranges. Members search the globe for new varieties or seek to develop tastier, heartier strains suitable for backyard growing.

While the organization focuses on fruit that is not widely commercially grown, members have a chance at immortality, and perhaps profit, with discoveries that become named varieties.

They point out that the Hass avocado, a variety that accounts for 95 percent of avocados grown in California, came from a tree amateur horticulturist Rudolph Hass discovered in his grove in the Orange County suburb of La Habra Heights in 1926.

The peach was Bathgate's shot at fame in the small but passionate world of exotic fruit growers.

"Isn't it delicious?" the 77-year-old retired aerospace engineer beamed. "I grafted it onto a friend's tree that never produced, and it's been going gangbusters since then."

Along with sampling new varieties of plums, apricots, peaches and other stone fruit, the growers could tour a pomegranate plantation or learn to propagate jujubes during the four-day conference held each year in August.

Edgar Valdivia, 70, escorted visitors through his shady San Fernando Valley backyard to show off spiky, pink dragon fruit, which is also known as a pitaya (pih-TIE'-yuh) or pitahaya (pih-tah-HAY'-yuh).

Although native to Central America, dragon fruit is more popular in Southeast Asia, where growers have bred varieties of the climbing cactus that are self-fertile, or don't require pollination by insects. But Asian varieties are often dull and bland, Valdivia said.

By cross-pollinating Vietnamese plants with varieties from the Americas, Valdivia and other dragon fruit devotees hope to improve the flavor and develop hybrids that tolerate different soils and weather patterns.

Even in California's mild Mediterranean-like climate, dry heat and occasional frost can make growing semitropical trees difficult. Valdivia strings his trees in Simi Valley with Christmas lights to keep the branches from freezing during cold snaps.

In his quest to popularize the pitaya and create a market outside of specialty Asian groceries, Valdivia gives away most of his small crop.

"It's for the pleasure of growing something new, maybe even getting your name on it, not the money," he said of his work.

Few rare fruits have commercial potential. Consumers are unlikely to see Bathgate's peach in grocery stores because it doesn't develop the kind of ripe blush most shoppers look for and it's too small and delicate to be stored and shipped long distances.

But rare fruit lovers hold out hope that one of their homegrown varieties might deserve a name, become popular with backyard growers and get registered on the Department of Agriculture's list of varieties, which is administered by California Rare Fruit Growers.

A few, such as Roger Meyer, have been able to sell to Asian or Latin American grocery stores.

"White people aren't too crazy about trying something new unless they've traveled and tried it fresh," said Meyer, 65. "To tell you the truth, I wouldn't have tried a mango 30 years ago. They were a dollar each and they weren't so good, sorta stringy."

The retired chemist grows cherimoyas and other fruit in northern San Diego County. Also known as the custard apple, the cherimoya has green scaly skin, cream-colored flesh with a sherbert-like texture and a taste that some compare to bubblegum.

Many of California's rare fruit growers consider themselves lucky to live in a mild climate because with the proper care, they can grow delicacies that remind people of their childhoods in Peru, Guatemala or India - including Japanese persimmons, caramel-sweet Indian mangos and the mamey sapote (mahm-MAY' sa-POE'-tay), which is used in a milkshake popular in the Caribbean.

At the fruit festival, San Diego farmer Laura Fletcher, 41, sampled new stone fruit varieties distributed by Dave Wilson Nurseries in Hickman, near Modesto. She jotted down favorites in a notebook.

"If I can defeat the squirrels that are eating my trees, I'll get on the next fruit bandwagon and sell at the farmers market," she said.

After all, supermarket shoppers were unfamiliar with kiwi and pomegranates not so long ago, and there's always the potential to find something that will catch on like the Hass avocado.

"To me, there's a better variety of fruit in someone's backyard and they don't even know it, don't even know that America wants it," Meyer said. "Our job is to find it."

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