Who doesn’t like a treasure hunt? The search for something mysterious and valuable, with just a few clues for guidance, is pretty irresistible. In California’s Nevada County, an unusual explorer with an unusual name — Amigo Bob Cantisano — hunts for remnants of the Gold Rush, just not the kind you might expect.
The treasures Cantisano seeks are trees, the fruits and nuts and ornamentals planted at homesteads and stagecoach stops and small orchards in the late 1800s.
Despite decades of neglect, many are still highly productive and could prove valuable at a time when California faces drought and the effects of climate change. Cantisano is looking to bring the best-tasting, heartiest ones back to life, back to gardens and farms.
He and two partners run a nonprofit organization: the Felix Gillet Institute. They’re committed to finding, identifying and propagating heirloom fruits and nuts from which they sell to gardeners and small farmers in Northern California and Oregon.
At his home about 20 minutes outside the picturesque Gold Country town of Nevada City, in the northeastern part of the state, Cantisano (the “Amigo” was a high school nickname that stuck) shows me around his garden and nursery.
Almost as an aside, he points to one plant, saying, “We have a lilac named after a friend of ours, Kate Wolf.” When I push, an illuminating story tumbles out: the late singer/songwriter spent summers nearby at an old mining camp and, decades ago, told Cantisano the backstory of her song “The Lilac and The Apple.”
“Kate wrote the song about walking into an old homestead with the house no longer there, and finding this apple and lilac growing on a hill,” he says.
In the song, Wolf imagines the plants reminiscing about the miners and mill workers who planted them, the lilac and the apple the only evidence that people once lived there.
“After she passed away, I started wondering about where that was,” he says.
After years of searching for the homestead, Cantisano finally got a lead. He walked for hours in forest along the Yuba River when, bingo: the lilac and the apple were still growing, side by side. He took cuttings and he’s been nurturing them in his nursery ever since.
Cantisano straps a ladder on his car, tosses bags in his trunk and takes me on a tour. Instead of pointing out old buildings, he shows me his favorite walnut, the rose and apple that grow in the cemetery, and a 120-year-old pear tree standing tall between a community hall and a gas station.
“It is absolutely just the most hearty tree,” he says, looking at the tree like it’s a friend. “It’s thrown huge crops every year in the drought. It doesn’t get diseases, it doesn’t get insects. Nobody prunes it, nobody waters it, nobody fertilizes it, and it is just prolific as heck. I’ve picked over 500 pounds of pears off of it.”
Cantisano says these resilient heirloom trees have lessons for growers in California today, where highly tended crops face drought, pests and disease.
“If we can figure out how to take those characteristics and meld them into modern agriculture, we’re going to have a more sustainable agriculture,” he says.
With a name like Amigo, dreadlocks down to his waist, and a year-round outfit of shorts and tie-dye, Cantisano has had plenty of people write him off over the years.
“I’m a hippie, OK!” he says with a laugh. More to the point, he’s an influential founding figure in California’s organic agriculture movement. Cantisano co-founded California Certified Organic Farmers — a leading organic certification organization — and advises a bunch of the big agriculture corporations on how to adopt organic methods for their operations, to highlight just a couple points on his extensive resume.
Cantisano was practically born into this work. His grandmother, Dorothy Moraga, gardened in her Bay Area home.
“She grew fava beans, made compost from the manure from our chickens, squashed the bugs and hoed the weeds,” he says, basically gardening organically before anyone used the term.
“I remember crawling around in the dirt, picking cucumbers with her.”
His interest piqued, Cantisano provided food for the San Francisco communes he lived in as a teenager by gardening. At the first Earth Day in 1970, he heard about pesticide hazards.
“A lightbulb went on, as they say,” and he’s worked in organic agriculture ever since. Eventually he moved to Nevada County, where he ran an organic garden supply store. That’s when he found his first abandoned trees, and started to learn about Felix Gillet, the Frenchman who ran a barbershop and then opened a nursery in Nevada City in the late 1800s.
“Gillet had plants from almost 35 countries. He was a plant maniac,” says Cantisano. “If you drink wine, you are indebted to Felix Gillet. He had a catalog of 241 types of grapes.”
That’s just grapes. From historic documents he’s found, Cantisano believes many of the trees still growing in the Sierra originated in Gillet’s nursery. When Cantisano and his partners formed their nonprofit, they named it in his honor.
Tom Gradziel, of the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, says a lot of California agriculture was built on the expertise of nurserymen like Gillet and his contemporaries.
“Now we can just go to the grocery store, and there are only one or two varieties of any given fruit or nut,” he says. “The horticulturist in all of us is lost. Nurserymen like Gillet would be appalled.”
Lack of diversity in varieties isn’t only dull for our taste buds, he says, it makes crops vulnerable to being wiped out. “The more diverse material we have in both commercial fields and in the backyard, the more resilience there’ll be to better contain disease and pests,” he says. While one variety might perish, another might survive.
As a breeder, Gradziel says it’s important to find a diversity of varieties that can work in a range of California environments. “The more we find with proven adaptability — and the stuff Bob’s finding has proven itself in adaptability — the better,” he says.
When Cantisano drives up to a property owned by his longtime friend, Sidonie Christian, that’s filled with mature trees, he sees Gillet’s living legacy. “This homestead clearly has Gillet vibe all through it,” he says. “All these trees are Gillet-era plants: the walnuts, the chestnut, the pear, the apples, the plums, the cherries.”
He and Christian rake the porcupine-like pods of chestnuts that have fallen to the ground, then peel and toss them in a basket. Of the 100 chestnuts he and his partners have tested, Cantisano says, “That’s the very best one. They are the tastiest, they’re the biggest.” Plus, Christian adds, they peel easily.
Based on tips from friends and their own explorations, the people at the Felix Gillet Institute have a database of more than 600 locations — and 3,000 plants — they want to investigate. They’ve gotten to about a fifth of those, evaluating each tree’s health and productivity, harvesting the crops, then inviting friends over to for a taste test of fresh fruit and nuts, pies and juices. They research their favorites, like this chestnut.
“We believe it’s called the Marron de Lyon, which means it’s from Lyon, France,” Cantisano says. “Judging from the leaf shape, the size of the nut and the structure of the plant, it looks like it’s a European chestnut.” The University of Pennsylvania is testing this chestnut’s DNA to find out for certain.
As they harvest, Christian tells Cantisano about county workers who were doing maintenance nearby and almost ran a beloved apple tree through a chipper.
“I ran out yelling, ‘No, no no! The whole neighborhood eats those apples,’ ” she says.
So I ask Cantisano: What happens when you lose a century-old heritage tree?
“If we lose a tree like this chestnut, we lose the genetics of a particularly hearty, productive, high-quality plant. You can’t find those everywhere.”
These trees are important for people and neighborhoods, too, says Christian, pointing around her small town.
“Generations of kids have eaten apples off that tree. Lots of people put chestnuts off this tree into their Thanksgiving stuffing and have done for years,” she says.
For Cantisano, this work connects human and botanical history. He says he’ll often stand in front of an old tree, “and just stop and try and feel the vibe of the person who planted it.”
He realizes it sounds a little odd but, “I’ve had trees talk to me, like ‘Thank you. You’re taking care of me again. I’ve been alone,’ ” not picked for decades.
“There is a spirit in those plants,” he says. A spirit he’s trying to keep alive.