Brave New Fruit

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.

Most Apriums look and taste like apricots, with a tinge of plum flavor, and are marketed as apricots. On the tour, however, Zaiger showed off a dramatic albino Aprium. White-fleshed, large, luscious, yet firm enough for shipping, it tasted bland. "Breeding material," he said. "We're still a few years off on that one."

Even more exotic is the Peacotum, a blend of peach, apricot and plum, a rosy-red creature with just a wisp of fuzz. It too needs work, but a delicate white peach-plum hybrid bred by Zaiger is already being marketed by the Tri Valley Growers cooperative as a "Snow Peach."

The half-dozen chief varieties of Pluots in commercial production ripen in two waves, late May through June and mid-July through September, leaving a hiatus of several weeks in the middle. To maintain his fruit's position at supermarkets and on restaurant menus, Zaiger is scrambling to fill the gap with new varieties.

The second, larger wave of Pluots begins this week with the harvest of sweet and juicy yellow-skinned Flavor Queens and distinctive, widely grown Dapple Dandys, which have speckled red skin and pink flesh.

Despite his success, Zaiger, 73, remains easygoing and unpretentious, speaking in the salt-of-the-earth twang of his Midwestern boyhood. He drives a 10-year-old car and hunts with bow and arrows for recreation. His wife, Betty, and children, Leith, Gary and Grant, play active roles in the business, from evaluating fruit to answering phones; the Zaiger stationery reads, "Family Organized to Improve Fruit Worldwide."

After the tour, several growers, heavily laden with bags of samples and wobbling in the heat, repaired to the Zaiger home for lunch. Over Betty's lasagna and cheese-and-spinach pie, they joked affably and talked shop.

The growers agreed that in addition to creating a new marketing niche, Pluots would partially replace plums. "Within 10 years, a quarter to a half of the plum business will be Pluots, from less than a tenth today," said Richard White. "They have the cosmetics and flavor to turn light buyers into heavy buyers."

The Pluot's status as a privately invented fruit occasionally leads to wrangles. Hickman-based Dave Wilson Nursery, which propagates and licenses Zaiger's varieties, fights a constant battle to defend the trademarks for Pluots and Apriums, to keep them from lapsing into generic use.

Some years ago, Michael Jackson, a large grower in Kingsburg, trademarked the name "Dinosaur Egg" as his brand for the Dapple Dandy, and adorned his shipping boxes with cute baby dinosaurs hatching and frolicking. Zaiger claims he thought of the name first.

A few growers, mostly in Europe and Chile, have tried to avoid paying Zaiger royalties by sending "cultivar rustlers" into orchards in the dead of night to filch budwood, which can be used to propagate trees illegally. Zaiger uses bounty hunters to nab the thieves and prove infringement.

For consumers, these dramas mean little compared to the opportunity to taste new, high-quality fruits. For a flavor of the future, follow Steven Brenkwitz around his orchard as he checks on ripening Pluots.

"Look," he says, pointing to an oblong greenish number, "it's the Hand Grenade, crunchy like an Asian pear. And there's the Cherry Pluot--it looks like a giant radish, but it's the tastiest thing you've ever eaten."

His eyes blaze. "And this is just the beginning--it's the 21st Century fruit."

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Plenty of Pluots

Steven Brenkwitz mail-orders several dozen varieties of Pluots, plumcots and Apriums from Eden Garden, including many experimental selections. The season runs from May through September, but each variety is only available for a week or two. A four-pound wooden box costs $40, and a seven-pound box costs $60; price includes overnight delivery in California. (888) 882-7742.

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