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Brave New Fruit

California farmers gret the millennium with a dazzling array of hybride.

July 21, 1999|DAVID KARP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Eden Pride plumcot shocks the eyes, the nose and the palate. From across the room, its flaming orange, slightly downy skin and alluring perfume evoke a gigantic dream apricot. Bite into the translucent, plumlike golden flesh, and it gushes syrupy juice, but without a plum's sour edge.

Experts swore this experimental variety rarely bore fruit. So how did Steven Brenkwitz manage to grow it? The eyes of this genial Tracy farmer narrow. "If I told you," he says, "I'd have to kill you."

Maybe he's kidding, but the brave new world of plum-apricot hybrids is serious business.

After 40 years of patient work, a Modesto fruit breeder named Floyd Zaiger has revolutionized the plum industry with his family of patented Pluots--smooth-skinned crosses in which plum genes and character prevail. His Apriums (mostly apricot) and plumcots (half plum, half apricot) lag a decade behind, but also offer the promise of distinctive, delicious new fruits.

A century ago, Luther Burbank, the greatest fruit breeder of his day, developed most of the plum varieties that have come to predominate in California. As part of his wide-ranging experiments, Burbank also hybridized some plumcots. Although these novelties astounded botanists, most were small, sour or unproductive, and the plumcot never fulfilled Burbank's promise of a "new order of fruit." They exist today only in private orchards.

Early in Zaiger's career, he worked for one of Burbank's students, Fred Anderson, the father of the modern nectarine. When Zaiger started making crosses on his own in the late 1950s, he originally sought to develop new rootstocks for grafting trees, ignoring the fruits themselves.

Almost all the crosses were sterile, like mules, but Zaiger noticed that a few bore fruit. He started selecting the large, attractive and flavorful ones, and he used their genes as building blocks for future generations.

Sitting in his Modesto office, Zaiger flips through one of the notebooks documenting his early work. "Breeding fruit is a game of numbers to break the links between desirable and undesirable characteristics," he says.

Hybrids between species provide great genetic variability, and therefore chance for improvement, but of the million crosses of various fruits Zaiger has made, only a tiny percentage have proved valuable.

Outside the office, ranks of young trees grow in blue plastic tubs. Each spring, to mate varieties that would not naturally bloom together, workers move trees between greenhouses maintained at different temperatures, applying the pollen from one tree to the flowers of another. They plant the seeds of the resulting fruits, wait several years for these seedlings to bear, and repropagate the most promising in a full-scale orchard for further evaluation.

It took 20 years from the initial crosses of proto-Pluots to the introduction of commercial varieties in 1989. Currently, some 2,333 acres of Pluots are growing in California, mostly in the Central Valley. That's a 25-fold increase from five years ago. These fruits, once viewed as specialty items, are increasingly available at supermarkets and farmers markets.

Each Wednesday in season, from May through September, Zaiger leads a tour of his 125-acre test orchard for commercial growers to sample experimental varieties, identified only by numbers. Each farmer hopes to select and plant a new winner--a "candy bar," as they say--before anyone else, to earn big bucks.

"The right choice of varieties can make or break a company," said Richard White, who has attended the gatherings for 14 years. "If you're not on the cutting edge, you'll find yourself out of business."

On a sweltering morning in late June, Zaiger walked six growers through rows of 15-foot trees, consulted his notebook, and stopped at 45GH74, a heart-shaped Pluot with speckled pink skin and crimson, sugary flesh. They inspected the tree and its fruit, tasted, and offered opinions.

"It's a pitter," said one man--meaning a fruit worthy of eating down to the stone, and therefore a possible winner and candidate for naming. He filled a paper bag with samples for later analysis. Other selections, less ripe or tasty, qualified only as "two-biters," or even "spitters."

It's not only taste that counts. Just one flaw can spell commercial doom for even the most delicious fruit, such as the Eden Pride plumcot, which tends to crack at the blossom end.

The only plumcot in widespread production, the early-season Flavorella, offers gorgeous bright yellow color and incredibly intense sweet-tart flavor. People love the taste, but the fruit drives farmers crazy by falling to the ground just before harvest. Improved, farmer-friendly plumcot varieties are in the pipeline.

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