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Southern California’s abundant residential fruit trees can be attributed to its sublime and storied climate, which supports various agricultural activities. Rachel Surls, the now-retired sustainable food systems advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles County, highlights this in her book “From Cows to Concrete: The Rise and Fall of Farming in Los Angeles.” The region’s climate allows almost anything to grow, a fact recognized even by early Spanish explorers.

Historical Roots of Southern California Agriculture

Southern California’s Indigenous peoples managed the native plants with controlled burns, pruning, and seed scattering. Spanish explorers saw the potential for farming when they camped along the Los Angeles River in 1769. They found a landscape capable of producing various grains and fruits. Hemp became the region’s first cash crop in 1808, with the majority grown around “El Pueblo de la Reyna de Los Angeles.”

Due to Spanish land grants or ranchos, the land initially supported vast grazing areas, leading to extensive cattle ranching. However, the Gold Rush and subsequent agricultural shifts saw a transition from cattle to diverse farming, including citrus and grapes. The arrival of the railroad in 1876 further boosted Southern California’s agricultural prospects by enabling rapid transportation of perishable crops.

Rise of Residential Fruit Trees

By the early 20th century, Los Angeles County was a significant agricultural hub. Post-World War II, returning soldiers flocked to the region, prompting a housing boom that transformed farms into residential areas. Many of these new subdivisions were built over old citrus orchards, and the tradition of growing fruit trees continued. Developers often included fruit trees in backyards, and residents, enthusiastic about gardening, planted even more.

Surls notes that while many residential fruit trees fell into neglect, citrus remains integral to Southern California’s identity. Despite quarantines due to pests and diseases, the memory of citrus groves persists, driving continued planting. The financial crisis of 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic further spurred interest in edible gardening, with many homeowners cultivating vegetable gardens and fruit trees.

Local Focus: La Crescenta, La Cañada, Sunland-Tujunga, and Glendale

The agricultural past is rich and varied in areas like La Crescenta, La Cañada, Sunland-Tujunga, and Glendale. Before urban development, these regions were dotted with citrus groves, including oranges and lemons, and other fruit trees like peaches, apricots, and plums. These areas were known for their fertile soil and ideal growing conditions, making them prime locations for extensive fruit orchards.

Here is an excerpt from an old Newspaper article about the Olive trees in La Crescenta.
Memories of picking olives in the foothills returned to Mike DeSantis of Montrose when he read a Verdugo Views column about the Charles Bathey homestead at the top of Briggs Avenue.

“Here’s my story of that area,” he wrote. “I think it’s the same property.”

He went on to describe a citrus ranch at the top of Briggs where it turns right. Crescenta Valley historian Mike Lawler confirmed DeSantis’ memory.

“Yes, this would have been the Bathey ranch,” Lawler said. “Briggs turns right and becomes Shields Street right at the Bathey property line. The Batheys had a citrus orchard in the front. It’s still there!”

DeSantis, who is of Italian heritage, said that his family used a lot of olive oil when he was growing up.

“When I was a kid during World War II, there was no olive oil coming from Italy, so my family used to come up to Briggs, where there were tons of olive trees,” he said. “The owner allowed us to pick the olives along the back part of the property, along the wash.”

Almost all the houses had olive trees, DeSantis recalled.

“There were olive orchards all along the foothills,” he said. “You still see some today.”

As housing developments replaced the groves, the legacy of these agricultural practices lived on. Many properties still feature remnants of these old orchards, and local residents continue to plant and maintain fruit trees, preserving a piece of the region’s agricultural history.

Southern California’s residential fruit trees testify to the region’s agricultural heritage and favorable climate. From the early days of Spanish exploration to modern-day gardening trends, fruit tree cultivation has been constant. Despite the challenges of urbanization and environmental threats, the tradition of growing fruit trees endures enriching the lives of residents and maintaining a vital connection to the region’s past.

1: LA TImes

2: Glendale Newspress

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