Filoli in Woodside was created nearly 100 years ago by gold-mining and spring-water magnate William Bowers Bourn II and his wife, Agnes. Among the highlights on the 654-acre country estate was a "gentlemen's orchard" -- a boutique collection of fruit trees, 1,000 in all. Planted in 1918, these European and American varieties provided the Bourn household with an Edenic bounty of apples, pears, plums and more.
By the end of the last century, however, only 150 of those trees remained. Time and neglect had taken their toll, a process accelerated after the house and gardens were donated in 1975 by Lurline Matson Roth to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Roth and her husband, William, who owned the Matson Navigation Co., had bought Filoli in 1937, a year after the passing of the Bourns. When the trust took over, it decided to abandon parts of the estate -- such as the orchard -- ones the visiting public was less likely to see. Animals such as deer, as well as invaders like poison oak, coyote brush and yellow star thistle, contributed to its decline.
Fortunately, Lucy Tolmach, Filoli's longtime director of horticulture, had long dreamed about returning the orchard to its glory days. In 1997, she made a successful proposal to the governing board of Filoli Center to restore the 6.8 acres that remained of the orchard area. Three acres had been turned into a visitors parking lot. Volunteers, led by fruit expert C. Todd Kennedy, and various entities such as the California Rare Fruit Growers set about stabilizing the existing perennials and adding some 225 heirloom varieties. Neither Bourn nor the Roths had kept records of what grew in the orchard, so Tolmach and Kennedy were left to decide what was appropriate.
Today, the gentlemen's orchard boasts approximately 656 fruit trees, including 270 varieties of apples and more than 100 varieties of pears. (Filoli's famous gardens also include about 450 more fruit trees.) In addition to familiar cultivars like Gravenstein and Jonathan, unrecognizable names such as Esopus Spitzenburg, Marie Louise Delcourt and Okusankichi can be found. And trees such as English walnut, chestnut and hazelnut are represented, joining 136 grapevines. The list goes on: fig, medlar, mayhaw, shan cha, persimmon, quince, sorb and whitebeam.
If all this sounds like a Noah's ark of fruits and nuts, that's essentially what it is.
"There were two main goals for this orchard," says Alex Fernandez, Filoli's manager of horticultural operations. "First and foremost, from the point of view of this being a National Trust property, it was to restore an original landscape feature. We don't care what's growing there; we just want it to look like an orchard so people driving in see it, and it tells the story of the estate.
"Second, it's to preserve the germplasm (collection of genetic resources) of varieties that are being lost." To that end, Fernandez does things like allow the Rare Fruit Growers to take tree cuttings once a year for scion (plant pieces used for grafting) exchanges.
And what happens to all the fruit from those 656 trees? "There are so many varieties that they ripen at different times," says Fernandez, who was project manager of the orchard's rehabilitation. The bulk of the weekly pickings, which is done by volunteers and begins around the second week of August, is kept for the fruit tastings at the annual fundraiser known as the Autumn at Filoli Festival. One day's yield averages 600 to 800 pounds. The estate's staff and volunteers get a portion, too, as does Village Harvest, a nonprofit group that mainly picks fruit from backyards and small orchards for distribution to food agencies and community food banks like Second Harvest. On Oct. 3, the last official picking of this year's orchard season, 5,000 pounds of apples and pears were gathered for the needy, says Fernandez.
Given the orchard's comeback from near ruin and the impressive yields of heirloom fruit, upkeep of the trees is surprisingly easy, he says. Two gardeners -- lead horticulturist David Shippy and assistant horticulturist Gabriel Verduzco -- are in charge. However, Fernandez points out, the pair "still have to maintain the gardens by the main house. Ninety-nine percent of what people come to see are the formal gardens, so we focus on that. Then we do what we can to make sure the orchard (is presentable and productive)."
Dangers to guard against include the bacterial disease fire blight, "the No. 1 killer of pear trees, for sure," Fernandez says, as well as oak root fungus in the apple trees. Fencing keeps out numerous fruit-loving deer on the Filoli property, but is useless against any gardener's archenemy: gophers. "We trap well over a hundred a year, but that's probably just a drop in the bucket," Fernandez says. "We try to focus trapping around newer plantings; they'll take out a new tree in no time."
Starting each June, docent-led tours of the gentlemen's orchard take place on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Only one more remains this year, on Oct. 26. They start at 10:30 a.m., last approximately 90 minutes and require sturdy footwear. Although there's not much fruit left to look at now, learning about the rich history here is well worth a visit.
For Fernandez, the 2 ½- ton Village Harvest collection early this month was his fruit-season finale. "A big shipment of tulip bulbs from Holland arrived that very day," he says. "My focus switched from fruit to getting bulbs in the ground."