In March, the epic winter rains broke just long enough for a fabulous apricot bloom. The mustard was up to my neck and nearly as bright as the sun. The gentle fragrance of blossoms hung in the air while bees hummed along to their next beautiful flower. I was humming a happy tune myself, realizing there was no place I’d rather be!
The blossoms arrived nearly a month late this year and more rain followed within a few days. This left my orchardist friends scratching their heads about the summer crop. They hope for the best, when spring gradually warms to summer and the apricots ripen in waves, beginning with the outer sun-exposed branches to the inner, shadier center of the tree. But this year, they wonder if the fruit will ripen later than usual, perhaps during a hot spell? Intense heat could cause the apricots to ripen all-at-once and drop to the ground. And what about the threat of a new plum bud gall mite (Acalitus phloecoptes) that has appeared in the Valley? For now, the orchardists have a patient “wait and see” attitude, while they tune up harvest equipment and ready irrigation pipes in preparation for the fruit season.
As for me, I’m content to appreciate the restorative winter rains that have brought spring’s refreshing beauty. The California drought is finally over — for now. On each visit to local orchards, I see more clearly that farmers tend their trees under ever-changing conditions – not just weather but all manner of economic, and regulatory forces. It is a very fragile balance that keeps the remaining orchards going in the Bay Area. Which leads me to believe the natural beauty of these orchards and anticipation of a new harvest is not something to take for granted, here or in any locale. I am grateful for what remains of the great Valley of Heart’s Delight’s orchards that were, not so long ago, one of the wonders of the world!
These glorious images of spring time in the Valley of Heart’s Delight inspire awe and also a deep sense of loss. There’s no denying the Santa Clara Valley’s singular agricultural beauty has been largely plowed under for urban development, yet patches of the once great orchard quilt can still be found in Heritage Orchards preserved by the cities of Saratoga, Los Altos, Sunnyvale, and San Jose. These orchards were preserved so that a piece of the region’s history, beauty, and extraordinary fruit could be experienced for generations to come. Just like in the days when people visited the world famous Santa Clara Valley first by horse drawn buggy, then trolley, train, and car, today you can still tour the Heritage Orchards using this map!
The local farmers who tend these orchards have deep roots in the Valley and are vital to maintaining this unique legacy. In Saratoga, the Novakovich family cares for the 14-acre Heritage Orchard that is planted with apricots and French prunes, while also tending their own 11-acre orchard of apricots and cherry trees less than a mile away. Charlie Olson has managed the 13-acre Sunnyvale Heritage Orchard with 10 acres of apricots and 3 acres of cherries since he sold the land to the City in the 1970s. Philip Doetsch, grew up on his family’s Los Gatos orchard and now serves as the City Orchardist for the 3-acre Los Altos Heritage Orchard, that is entirely apricot trees. San Jose’s Historic Orchard within the Guadalupe Park River Conservancy has over 200 predominantly apricot, prune, and cherry trees.
Each Heritage Orchard holds special events when the public can visit and enjoy their beauty and fabulous fruit. Los Altos created a new tradition in 2018 called the Apricot STEM Fair, held in late June when apricots are ripe; Sunnyvale opens a farm stand every summer to sell fresh cherries and apricots. Saratoga revived the historic Blossom Festival in 2012, a day-long event for the community and visitors to enjoy the blossom spectacle much like when it was first created in 1900.
Come join the Saratoga Blossom Festival celebration this year on April 13, 2019 from 10 am to 3 pm. I’ll be there presenting a talk about the history of the Valley, and signing my cookbook, For the Love of Apricots: Recipes and Memories of the Santa Clara Valley. Stop by and say hello! And check my website for upcoming Heritage Orchard events, farm shop locations, and more information about our beloved fruit.
Apricots found their place in America’s taste-memory during the century when the Valley of Heart’s Delight thrived. The orchards that remain today are precious resources that should be celebrated and protected as part of our modern-day, urbanized region. Take time to support the City Heritage Orchards along with the remaining independent orchards, farms, and farm stands to help ensure that the next generation will share in the delights of spring and glory of wonderful summer fruit!