The story of apple growing in California is as telling and variegated as the modern regional settlement of the state itself.
Once word had spread like wild-fire throughout this country that gold had been discovered in the trail race of the America River (located in north-central territory of the state, between present-day Sacremento and Placerville) in 1849, people by the tens of thousands began migrating into California Territory. Settlers came from as far away as long-established communities on the east coast; thousands upon thousands more journeyed by ship, across the Pacific Ocean. The initial twelvemonth following the discovery of those first flecks
of gold at Sutter's Mill saw the population of the Collumah Valley increase to nearly one hundred thousand as people from all over the world travelled to California, carrying the age-old dream of making their fortunes. This influx of settlers, which continued unabated even after the last streams of gold had been mined nearly fifteen years later, created a natural market for products and services from California's closest neighbours to the north, the Washington and Oregon territories.
Modest orchards had been planted in the countryside surrounding the old fort of Vancouver for twenty years prior to the California gold rush. Early into the decade of the 1850s, the nascent Washington enterprise had produced enough fruit for profit-hungry growers to tap into the built-in markets which lay over land, to the immediate south. Fruit farmers in Washington discovered their own "gold rush," of sorts, reaping unheard of prices for some of the first apples to arrive in San Francisco. A single account, from the year 1853, reported that four bushels of apples garnered five-hundred dollars. So much in demand was this rare bounty from Washington that growers and packers were soon compelled to ship all south-bound produce in iron crates, to prevent theft.
Because there was prosperous income to be derived from means other than panning for gold, many new migrants began to plant their own orchards. One year after California became a state, in 1850, miners in the Pajero Valley began farming. They first planted potatoes, then turned to fruit growing. Immigrants from Serbia and Croatia, who helped to settle one of Pajero's earliest communities, Watsonville, also began to plant rooted saplings. Commercial production of their apple orchards expanded so rapidly that the town earned the nickname "Apple City" by the turn of the 20th century. Another immigrant colony, located in the Russian River Valley, gave rise to magnificent European cultivars. Between 1870 and 1890, Gravensteins and Pippins from the orchards of Sebastopol became as prized as those grown 3,000 miles back east. Before Sonoma produced its modern (post-War) vineyards, much of that valley's agriculture was devoted to apple growing.
Today, California's orchards are widely scattered, diverse ventures which stretch across the length of the state. From Mendocino and Sonoma in the north down through Tehachapi and into Julian (east of San Diego) in the south, California produces more apple varieties than does any region west of the Rocky Mountains. One finds heritage apples (such Arkansas Black, Pippin, Gravensteins and Winesap); old favourites (such as Red and Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Jonathan); great cooking apples (Northern Spy, Rome Beauty), newer consumer delights (Braeburn, Fuji and Gala), and the delectable Lady dessert apple. California also lays claim to indigenous cultivars, unique to that state alone. The early-season Sommerfeld (Central Valley, c.1984)
and the late-season Sundowner (originally from Australia) are but two California varieties which are fast gaining reputations for terrific fresh-eating.