If you are among the many who believe macadamia nuts grow only in Hawaii, think again.
According to Jim Russell, a local grower and president of the California Macadamia Nut Society, the first macadamia nut trees were brought from Australia's tropical rain forest to Berkeley in the 1890s. They were later introduced to Hawaii, where the nuts attained commercial recognition. Several decades later, the trees reappeared on the mainland, including in North County. Some varieties, such as the Cate, are ready for harvest in time for the holidays. Others produce almost year-round.
Wilbur Simlik, a retired Marine general and owner of Macadamia Hill Ranch in Vista, has one of the oldest groves of Cate macadamias in the county. The original owner of the ranch, Wells Miller, brought back hundreds of macadamia seedlings from Australia and Hawaii in 1958. Records of his grafting experiments were kept by UC Riverside, and his grafts eventually made their way to Israel and Central America.
"Macadamia trees are very independent," said Russell, a grower since 1978. "Every time you plant a seed, you get another variety. But, if you planted 50,000, maybe only two would be good. That's why we graft them."
Only two botanical varieties produce edible nuts, he said: the tetraphylla, a species well-suited to the California climate; and the integrifolia, which accounts for Hawaii's major production.
The tetraphylla, which includes the Cate, a popular variety in North County, produces a larger, sweeter nut than the integrifolia. Russell said that macadamias aren't actually roasted in an oven, but deep fried in oil, "just like French fries."
In 1987, Russell lost a grove of mature trees to freezing temperatures. The experience hasn't discouraged him from attempting to develop a hardier variety, however. "They're beautiful landscape trees," he said. "You can prune them if you want to, and they actually grow and yield fruit even in containers."
Macadamia trees come in all shapes and sizes at Tom Cooper's Rancho Nuez in Fallbrook. "We planted a few trees after a friend introduced us to the macadamia in the late '60s, and we've been adding ever since," said Cooper, who publishes the Macadamia Nut Grower Quarterly.
Like many consumers, Kitty Scholes, owner of the Bob-Kat Ranch in Fallbrook, thought that macadamias grew only in Hawaii until 1968, when a friend told her they thrived under local conditions. Over two decades later, Scholes acts as secretary-treasurer of the Gold Crown Macadamia Assn., a grower-owned and operated co-op in Fallbrook that ships macadamias all over the United States. The co-op now counts more than 160 growers, who all pool their macadamias in a Fallbrook warehouse. "There is no membership fee, and anyone with at least five trees may join," said Scholes.
A gentle breeze rustles through the lush foliage of the extensive grove of Cate macadamias, as Scholes checks the clusters of nuts hanging from the limbs like large, green beads. Cates shed their husk as they hit the ground, and marble-sized nuts the color of milk-chocolate dot the thick mulch.
The nuts are hand-gathered, then culled, once again by hand. After the nuts are run through a husking machine, they are air-dried for 2 or 3 weeks to get the moisture out. The growers then send nuts to the co-op in 50-pound sacks.
Humans are not alone in enjoying macadamias.
"Squirrels, coyotes, crows, rats and even bobcats all love macadamias," said Scholes. So do parrots and macaws, whose breeders have become regular customers of the macadamia co-op in Fallbrook.
Macadamias contain no cholesterol. Unshelled, they keep up to a year. Nutmeats should be stored in an airtight container and refrigerated, or frozen until just before use. When thawing, don't open the container until the nuts have reached room temperature to avoid rehydration. Roasting or toasting also extends the shelf life of nutmeats.
Macadamias are a good source of calcium and riboflavin.
Macadamia Products, 205 Calle Linda, Fallbrook, 92028. Barbara and Jim Russell. 728-8081. Nutmeats $9 per pound; unshelled nuts $3 per pound. Macadamia nutcrackers cost $10 each (plus $2 for shipping.) Gift packs available by mail order.
Macadamia Hill Ranch, 2766 Ormsby, Vista, 92083. Wilbur Simlik. 724-7745. Sells year-round at Vista farmer's market. Call to place an order. Natural, raw, shelled and dried nuts, $7 per pound; unshelled nuts, $2.50 per pound. Will ship via UPS.
Gold Crown Macadamia Assn., P.O. Box 235, Fallbrook, 92028-0235. Kitty Scholes, director, secretary/treasurer. 728-4532. Regular, unshelled nuts in 50-pound bags only, $1.50 per pound; premium variety, $1.65 a pound. Nutmeats in 25-pound vacuum-bags $5.25 per pound (plus freight). Mac-reversible crackers, $9.16 each, including tax and shipping. Nuts can be cracked on site for an extra 25 cents a pound.
Cooper's Nut House, 1378 Willow Glen Road, Fallbrook. Tom and Cindy Cooper. 728-6407. Open daily year-round. Shelled, unsalted, roasted macadamias, $14 per pound; unshelled nuts, $4 a pound; milk or dark chocolate nut clusters, $18 per pound; macadamia brittle, $12 per pound. Holiday gift packs available by mail order. Subscriptions to the Macadamia Nut Grower Quarterly are available from Rancho Nuez Publications, P.O. Box 666, Fallbrook, 92028, $15 a year.