Horticultural Espionage

I was once a spy. I guess that’s what you’d call it. I agreed to smuggle seeds. This wasn’t contraband. These seeds weren’t illegal. It was more like a hostage situation. These seeds needed liberating, and I was just the person to do it.

My mission? Obtain a dozen chestnuts from two venerable trees growing along an obscure back road in California’s Mother Lode. I was to locate the sixty-foot-tall trees and keep watch on the ripening nuts so I’d be there when they plummeted to the ground.

Why? Back then, a large commercial nursery claimed to be the exclusive source for ‘Colossal’ chestnut trees and charged exorbitant prices for their nursery stock. A handful of scrappy organic farmers decided to bring ‘Colossal’ back to the people. It’s what Felix would have wanted.

Pioneer horticulturalist Felix Gillett birthed the ‘Colossal’ chestnut in his Barren Hill Nursery in Nevada City, California. A French immigrant, Felix began importing plants from Europe around 1870. He undertook an ambitious breeding program in which he crossed the best of European and Asian varieties with native North American stock. The results rocked the early California agrarian world. He’s been called the father of most of the perennial crop agriculture in the western United States. But unlike his contemporary, Luther Burbank, Felix Gillett’s contributions were largely forgotten. Which is ironic considering that hundreds, if not thousands, of his trees continue to produce fruit in backyards and backwoods to this day.

Just ask organic farming guru “Amigo Bob” Cantisano who, for the past forty years, has searched old homesteads and mining settlements for hardy survivors of the plants Gillet offered. Amigo Bob found so many of these heirlooms that he created the Felix Gillet Institute to document, propagate, and sell again Barren Hill Nursery’s hardy stock. (I suspect Amigo Bob is channeling Filex Gillet.)

The parent trees I gathered chestnuts from thirty years ago are still alive and healthy. They still drop seeds so hefty that a tree squirrel would be advised to wear a helmet during harvest season. I didn’t think my efforts to get those chestnuts into the hands of budding agricultural preservationists was any great feat, but recently I noticed ‘Colossal’ seedlings available from at least a dozen nurseries in a wide range of prices, coast to coast. What do you know? Our grassroots horticultural community is keeping Felix’s vision alive — and I was a small part of it.

Mission accomplished.