Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Lost Apricot Trees of Los Altos Hills

The view of the San Francisco Bay Area from the hilltop orchard of the late David Packard in Los Altos Hills is something to see.

This is an excerpt from an article I recently wrote for the Los Altos Hills publication Our Town:

Summer is coming to an end and the rolling hills around us are the dusty color of adobe. Aging apricot trees planted long ago will soon begin to shed their leaves. At local markets, you’ll find reminders of the warm days past in the orange, scented, sweet, dried, California apricots: true local treasurers. In Los Altos Hills, the remnants of the apricot orchards that once filled our acres are reminders both of our waning summer and of our history. For, the exotic apricot trees harken back to the time of the Franciscan missionaries, who brought the first apricot seedlings with them as they walked the dusty paths from Mexico into the Santa Clara Valley.

Those first small orchards of the padres were transformed by the Gold Rush, when farm boys, who didn’t make a fortune in the diggings, found another way to mine success. The orchards planted in that era turned the Santa Clara Valley into the largest fruit-producing region in the world for the century that followed.

The David Packard Orchard at apricot drying time in Los Altos Hills.

The soil in the valley south of San Francisco Bay had some of the richest topsoil these new Californians had ever seen.  Add to that: plentiful artesian wells; magnificent weather; and easy access to the Port of San Francisco; and its no wonder the orchard business took off. Prunes and apricots dominated the landscape, though all stone fruits prospered here. Of them all, the apricot was perhaps the most selective in the climates it liked. 

At the turn of the twentieth century, the University of California’s Edward Wickson, analyzed this Asian fruit’s surprise success in its adopted home. There were seven million apricot trees then, in the Santa Clara Valley, where the apricot found a perfect place to thrive.  “It is close to the ocean but moderated from it by San Francisco Bay on one side and the Coast Range on the other,” wrote Wickson in The California Fruits and How to Grow Them (1926). “The air has a clearness and brilliance from its aridity which makes each day of the long, growing season more than a day in other climates … and we have not only size, but quality, color, aroma—everything which makes the perfect fruit precious and beautiful beyond words.”

Cutting 'cots in Los Altos Hills, summer 2012.

The foothills above the valley—places like Los Altos Hills—provided a microclimate within this environment that was even better. When the warm air of the valley rises into the foothills at night, it is trapped by the cool air from the Pacific Ocean, as that air moves down from the Coast Range. At elevations between 300 and 800 feet above sea level, old timers say, there is a warm belt that produces magnificent apricots. 

Charles Olson, a third generation local grower, says he could always spot apricots from the orchards of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. “They are the richest orange color and the sweetest to the taste,” he says. Peter Pavlina, a second generation grower who lives with his wife Carole in Los Altos Hills, confirms Olson’s empirical evidence. “The ‘cots from the hills were always as sweet as candy,” Pavlina says.

One part-time grower who spanned two eras--the Santa Clara Valley’s peak as an agricultural giant and its later predominance as Silicon Valley--was David Packard, who founded Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto in 1939. After the company became successful, Packard and his family moved to a home in Los Altos Hills surrounded by more than sixty acres of apricot trees. Charles Olson met the technology giant one day when Packard drove down to Sunnyvale to look at Olson’s trees. Olson says Packard loved nothing more than to get on his tractor after a hard day at the office and work among his apricot trees.  

During World War II, millions of American soldiers traveled through the ports of the West. Having discovered California in their travels, many veterans returned. In the years that followed, the population of Santa Clara County doubled every decade. With great universities nearby—David Packard himself was a graduate of Stanford—entrepreneurs flocked to the region with its perfect climate and charming towns. The changes that followed may have been inevitable.

But locals are lucky. The work of preservation has not been forgotten. The City of Los Altos has the ten-acre Gilbert Smith Heritage Apricot Orchard surrounding its city hall and library—a library it shares with Los Altos Hills. The City of Saratoga established its Central Park Orchard in 1984 where it cultivates thirteen acres of apricots and prunes. In the twenty-first century, Sunnyvale preserved an apricot orchard, which Charles Olson had been operating since 1977. Sunnyvale’s stunning Orchard Heritage Park is the result.

Saratoga's Central Park Orchard this summer in the sunshine.

Thanks to David Packard, Los Altos Hills also benefits from preservation. His sixty-seven acre apricot orchard is privately maintained today—by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation—but, the open space those trees provide and the history they represent, are as public as can be. All who drive up into Los Altos Hills can glimpse the trees on Elena in all seasons. From the pink-and-white blossoms of spring, to the scent of apricots on the summer breeze, to the falling leaves of autumn, this historic orchard provides a unique vista, and a reminder of our past, for all to enjoy.

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