First to plant many exotic fruits in U.S.

Times Staff Writer

Paul Thomson, a self-taught botanist who co-founded the California Rare Fruit Growers organization and helped expand exotic fruit-growing in the state, has died. He was 91.

Thomson died May 31 of complications related to old age at a Fallbrook retirement home, said Patti Humphreys, a friend.

Two years after John Riley, a Lockheed Martin engineer from Santa Clara, sought out Thomson’s advice, the pair founded the fruit growers group in 1968 as a clearinghouse for exotic plant enthusiasts. The organization of amateur horticulturists now has more than 3,000 members in about 35 countries.

The region was ripe for new ideas at the time because newcomers were piling into California in the late 1960s “without prejudice to what could not be grown here,” according to an association history.


The group played a major role in promoting many once-rare fruits that have become widely available at farmers markets throughout Southern California, the online newsletter Seasonal Chef reported in 1997.

Thomson was “the driving force” behind a movement to change what could be grown here, the newsletter said.

The child of missionaries, Thomson developed a taste for mangoes while growing up in India. When he landed in San Diego in the 1950s near the end of his 20-year career in the Marines, he experimented on five acres in Bonsall, east of Oceanside, with growing fruit usually found in warmer climes.

He planted the Chinese litchi and longan fruits, papayas, mangoes and any other tropical and subtropical fruit he could find. For the most part, he failed spectacularly, done in by freezing and fluctuating temperatures.


“Everybody told me I was crazy,” Thomson told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1989. “Well, that’s when you put your back to the wall and prove otherwise.”

In 1962, he bought a second small farm in Vista, which was a little more than five miles away but had a milder and more hospitable climate.

Between his two small orchards, he planted 96 types of fruit not usually grown in the United States, The Times reported in 1971.

He produced the first mamey -- commonly known as a South American apricot -- of record in California and had the only longan orchard in the U.S. at the time.

“I was 20 years ahead of my time,” Thomson said in the Union-Tribune in 1989. “I never made enough to pay the water bill, let alone make any money.”

An organic gardener, he earned his living budding and grafting fruit trees for nurseries and grove owners. He also grew mangoes and cherimoyas for the Southern California market.

“Paul Thomson was the father figure in the art of unusual fruit growing,” Jack Skeels, who met Thomson about 25 years ago, wrote in the fruit growers’ magazine.

“I don’t believe he was ever stumped by a horticultural question,” Skeels said in the current edition of Fruit Gardener, a bimonthly magazine that grew out of a newsletter Thomson published for years on a mimeograph machine.


Thomson was born June 29, 1916, in India to Clinton and Bertha Mangon Thomson. His father was a minister and his mother a doctor who ran a hospital.

When Thomson was 11, he went hunting with his father for Christmas dinner. His father shot two wild ducks, which fell into a lake, and drowned trying to retrieve them.

His family, which included four younger sisters, returned to Nebraska, where his mother practiced medicine.

He attended Nebraska Wesleyan University for more than two years but dropped out in 1937, unable to afford tuition.

After working on farms, he installed an early railroad- signal control system and telegraph lines in Colorado before joining the Marines in 1938.

During World War II, Thomson was a chemical warfare instructor. He ran sawmills in Korea to produce lumber for military operations during the Korean War. By the early 1950s, he was stationed in San Diego.

By most accounts, Thomson cultivated a gruff manner that he softened with a corny sense of humor.

“But if you needed something,” said his friend Humphreys, “he was there in a heartbeat.”


Thomson’s wife of 65 years, Helen, died last year.

He is survived by four sisters, Margaret Greiber of Orlando, Fla.; Catharine Kingsolver of Casper, Wyo.; Alice Hasenyager of DeLand, Fla.; and Ellen Hanly of Kirkland, Wash.