Rare fruit growers have lost a pioneer

I just learned that Paul Thomson has died. Paul was one of the founders in 1968 of the California Rare Fruit Growers, and continued to pioneer the growing of rare fruits until his declining health prevented him from doing so in recent years. He lived into his 90s, which I always thought was a good testament to the power of eating a rich variety of fruits!

I had the pleasure of knowing Paul personally, though not intimately, because I am fortunate enough to live near him and to be a member of the same local chapter of CRFG as its co-founder. He regularly imparted his wisdom on us newcomers (example: always graft at the waxing moon).

I distinctly remember two specific pieces of advice he had for me. When I had just joined CRFG in 1996, and we spoke about where I was planting my first little orchard, in Carlsbad, he asked if I was near “that slough.” Yes, just above one of the lagoons on the coastline. Paul said, “you’ll get a lot more chill than you think.” He was right. It turned out to be a great place to grow stone fruits, including many that the more conventional nursery experts thought I could not grow, but not so good for subtropicals.

Then after moving to Bonsall–just down the road from where Paul lived and experimented for many years–I remember how he repeated with an exclamation the name of the locale of our finca-to-be. Moosa Canyon!! You had better be up high if you want to grow anything that’s tender to frost, he warned me. You’ll get some hard freezes in there, and then he related the experience of his frozen pipes years ago. Well, I planted the tender stuff up as high as I could. And lost almost all of it in the freeze of 2007. The killed trees included a mango variety that bears his name, as it was one of his selections for best mango for a region that will always marginal for subtropical fruits. Indeed, it had just had the most fruit I have ever had in ten years of trying various varieties.

No obituary has appeared yet in the local newspaper, but Seasonal Chef has a nice feature, dated 1997, about the impact Thomson and his followers had on rare-fruit growing here in northern San Diego County and beyond. The story explains how he realized Bonsall was not the place to grow the most tender fruits, and bought a property known as Edgehill, in Vista. I had just driven up to Edgehill a few weeks ago. Many of the magnificent lychee and other trees that he planted decades ago still stand and fruit, even though the property has been developed with several luxury homes. Of course, the real luxury–whether the residents realize it or not–is those great old fruit trees.

Paul knew his fruit. I am blessed to have known Paul.

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