Ecologist Jesus Manuel Garcia Yanez, who is seeking to re-create orchards he knew as a child, walked through an orchard in Tumacacori, Ariz.

John Burcham, New York Times

A drawing of the area when it was known as New Spain above modern Tucson, where urban sprawl now obscures the vista.

John Burcham, New York Times

A pomegranate from the Tucson mission gardens has little resemblance — in appearance or flavor — to those widely known.

John Burcham, New York Times

Amid sprawl of Tucson, ecologist seeks to give trees new life

  • New York Times
  • November 24, 2012 - 6:51 PM


The lost pueblito of Tucson is a Spanish outpost of Pima Indians, soldiers and ranchers on the banks of the Santa Cruz River. On a clear, sunny day, Jesus Manuel Garcia Yanez will sometimes look for the missing settlement from the top of a black volcanic heap that the locals call A Mountain, after the gigantic concrete letter on the side.

Garcia, 44, is an ecologist. But more broadly, he is a self-appointed emissary from the land once known as Pimeria Alta, an interpreter of its culture, plants and people.

He pointed to the west. Picture the Presidio of San Agustin de Tucson right there, a 12-foot-high adobe bulwark against Apache marauders. Across the old irrigation ditches would be the mission and convent, which rose after the Jesuit padre Eusebio Francisco Kino visited in the 1690s.

What obscured the vista, as it has for the last 50 years, was the sprawl of modern Tucson. The mission and convent had crumbled and become a municipal dump. "It's a search for what Tucson used to be," Garcia said. "For newer generations to try to see that is almost impossible."

Except one thing remains: a small orchard of the same fruit trees that Padre Kino and his fellow missionaries brought with them from the Mediterranean. These trees were no mirage: apricots, peaches, quinces, figs, pears, limas (or sweet limes) and pomegranates. Along with a civic group called Friends of Tucson's Birthplace, Garcia helped to plant the Mission Garden in March with specimens he scouted himself.

'There's no pattern'

He had found the trees growing at border ranches and in the back yards of elderly Hispanic women. How long has that quince been there, he would ask, and what is its story? In a way, his mission is to recreate the orchards he knew in his family seat in Magdalena de Kino, Mexico. He has started with dozens of seedlings in the back yard of the small ranch house that he shares with his girlfriend, Dena Cowan.

Yet he remembered the orchards with something other than simple nostalgia. As a child, he packed boxes of fruit to load onto his uncle's truck. "My father had this farm that he was renting," he recalled. By necessity, "the only things we bought from the store were salt, sugar, coffee and kerosene. Everything else we produced."

The first priority on this morning was to visit the huerta, the small orchard, at the bottom of the hill and get a taste of history. At first glance, the 119 scattered trees and 24 grapevines -- which sprawl across the ground -- didn't resemble any kind of orchard. "In a colonial orchard, there's no pattern," he said. "If you see an orchard in Mexico, the trees look too close. But after a decade, the upper boughs would form a continuous canopy, providing shade."

Garcia returned with a handful of fruit. Allegedly, this was a pomegranate. Yet there was little resemblance to the red fruit we know from the grocery store. Inside, the arils, or edible nuggets, were almost white and free of any tartness.

Likewise, a typical American quince would be unpalatable without a long syrup bath. Yet Garcia's chartreuse-yellow pome could masquerade as an almost-ripe pear.

A riddle of heritage and a missing link

The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains 220 pomegranate and 150 quince varieties at repositories in Davis, Calif., and Corvallis, Ore. But the pomegranate curator, Jeff Moersfelder, was hard-pressed to identify a match for these fruits. The quince keeper, Joseph Postman, said that in the future, DNA testing might reveal whether the pome was a descendant of old Mediterranean stock.

For many fruit trees, 100 is decrepitude. It would seem impossible, then, that Garcia's heritage trees could have come from the missionaries. The answer to this riddle, he believes, lies in a Mexican horticultural tradition that continues to this day.

Trees most often start as cuttings. An orchardist will snip a short length of scion wood from a tree and bury it in moist soil. Before long, the specimen will sink roots of its own. To propagate a new plant, he would scratch the bottom of the bark, push the wood beneath the soil and weight it down. This future cutting he called an acodo, or a layer. The tree would be a clone of the mother plant -- or the grandmother. Now Garcia could trace a tree's lineage back 100 to 150 years, to the days before Arizona's statehood.

The missing link was the back-yard gardeners who had watered the trees through the decades, passing a cutting to a child or neighbor. "For me, a lot of it is not just collecting and propagating the tree, but collecting the stories behind the trees," Garcia said. "That's the connection to the past: this 95-year-old lady planting the trees. How many newer houses in Tucson have 10 different fruit trees in the back yard? Nobody."

© 2018 Star Tribune