What’s under the Tuscan sun is under the sun in the Fillmore district too. According to Dr. Judith Taylor, those are real olive trees along Pine Street between Webster and Fillmore, and there’s a magnificent pair in a private garden in front of a house on Pacific between Webster and Fillmore. Olive trees are also growing along Hyde Street near the Hastings Law School.
“Olive trees are remarkably beautiful,” she says in an elegant British accent, “but the unfortunate reality is that they ripen here during the rainy season and when ripe the fruit falls, so olive trees can be quite messy. That’s probably why there aren’t more of them.
“Ripe olives are also very fragile. The fruit is so full of oil, it molds very quickly and then nobody wants it. Many people are allergic to their pollen too, so…well, it can be a nuisance as a tree.”
This did not deter Dr. Taylor, an Oxford educated, former New York City neur-ologist whose unexpected love affair with the olive trees of California even more unexpectedly turned her into the lady who actually wrote the book. Dr. Judith M. Taylor’s The Olive in California: History of an Immigrant Tree published in 2000 by Ten Speed Press has become a minor classic, one of those sleepers that creeps to the top of the sales charts, because, as she modestly points out, “there’s simply no other book on the subject.”
Certainly if there had been, the tall, lanky and gray haired Dr. Taylor and her husband, Dr. Irvin Taylor, an ophthalmologist, might have had a more leisurely retire-ment from their New York practices in the quiet of Tiburon. “We found a house there in reasonable repair,” she says, sitting in the damask living room of her Pacific Heights apartment and pointing across the bay. “But the garden was in such disrepair we had to start anew.
“Well, I knew this is a Mediterranean climate so I wanted a Mediterranean garden. We bought twenty five olive trees, lemon trees and oranges too, trying to be very California. Those olive trees were so beautiful, so beautiful I couldn’t get over them. I wanted to know more about them, everything I could.
“I quickly found out that many other people were trying to get information about olive trees too,” she says, referring to the late Lila Jaeger, Nan McEvoy, B.R. Cohn and other local pioneers of American olive oil, “mostly because they were planting them in order to make oil. I joined the California Olive Oil Council to learn as much as I could.
“I went to all the Farmers’ Markets. Finally in San Francisco I talked to a man selling olive oil from the back of his truck at the Ferry Plaza market and that at last was ‘fruitful.’ His name was Dan Sciabica and he knew everything I needed to know.
” He said: ‘You have to call Darrell Corti in Sacramento. He’s a walking encyclo-pedia.’ So I did. That’s when I realized somebody had to write all this down and it might as well be me. I will have to be the one to record all this into a book.
“Darrell sent me to UC Davis,” she explains, “and the people there sent me to various county extension experts. Soon I was deeply involved.” With the stubborn focus and sense of detail honed in medical research, for two years Dr. Taylor traveled across the length and width of California.
“I began driving up and down Highway 99 discovering a new world. I found farm villages I had not known were out there. Going from Three Rivers between orange groves I saw a sign for Yettem--that’s Armenian for Eden—and found myself in a historic Armenian village. For someone as brand new to California as I was, this was a major education.”
The first thing she learned is that almost all of California’s olive trees aren’t Tuscan; they’re Spanish. “No one knows if the first trees, which fruited in 1803 in San Diego, came from seed or cuttings but we do know they came to the mission from Mexican missions and the Mexican trees came from Spain. They were simply known as Mission Olive. About a century ago, people tried to establish their actual provenance and traced it back to the Cornicabra Olive, a tree widely grown in Spain for oil.
“Just before that, in the last half of the 19th Century, there was an olive ‘bubble’ primarily in southern California. Olives had been grown mainly to get oil for the Catholic sacraments but now two men had the idea of establishing orchards in San Diego and Santa Barbara to make oil on a commercial basis.
“Their success got people thinking: ‘If the Mission Olive tree is good, maybe there is an even better one.’ So they scoured Europe. They brought back over 300 varieties from France, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Croatia, Greece and North Africa. They were seeking trees accustomed to high altitude, to sea spray, to all sorts of conditions found in California. Some of what they found is still growing at UC Davis.
“Before irrigation technology, California was an arid desert. It was as dry as Spain, which is why out of all those lovely trees, only the Mission Olive and a few other Spanish varieties have thrived.
People like B.R. Cohn in Sonoma have restored some of that old stock and are re-importing trees. Nan McEvoy has used an Italian horticulturist to help her get the best out of the Italian varieties on her ranch in Petaluma.” One new successful variety in the city is the Australian “Swan Hill”, a fruitless ornamental tree that solves the mess problem.
One of the Californians most interested in her book was a Mr. Musco who bought a thousand copies and asked to have each one autographed. It turned out he owns one of the last two remaining commercial olive canneries in the state.
While she was doing her extensive research on what she deliberately calls “an immigrant tree” in UC Davis’ Special Collections, the generous Director, John Skarstad, dug up all sorts of archival material that had been buried there including a huge box of papers which had been untouched for almost thirty years. The cache turned into another fruitful bonanza for Dr. Taylor.
“Under a pile of loose papers was a 400 page manuscript in a binder: the whole horticultural history of California up to 1945 with ‘outtakes’ from articles on single subjects and snapshots starting from 1887. It had been compiled by beloved UC Berkeley horticulturist Harry Butterfield, and it was his life’s work. He bequeathed all his papers to the University of California, including this unpublished manuscript specifically designated as a resource for students.
“This goldmine of information had been donated in 1970 and the only clue as to where it came from when I found it in 1998 was his daughter’s phone number from that time. I thought: ‘Well, I might as well try because I’d like to do something about this history. So I rang the number and even after nearly thirty years Butterfield’s daughter answered! I think that was one of the most extraordinary moments of my life.”
With permission granted to publish the history, Dr. Taylor was now so busy writing about gardens she no longer had time to have one. The Taylors sold their house in Tiburon and moved to a Pacific Heights flat overlooking the bay and she began turning Butterfield’s research into her own book: Tangible Memories: Californians and Their Gardens 1800-1950, a 400 page illustrated volume with an appendix revealing the dates many plants first arrived in California. The book talks about many of the state’s first nurserymen. Published by Ex Libris in 2003, it’s available at Browser Books on Fillmore.
Dr. Taylor says she added 50 gardens to the 300 Butterfield had already catalogued and photographed. He had an image of the Lone Mountain Cemetery created in 1854. She augmented the material about Golden Gate Park, Lompoc Mission and included the Martinez orchard John Muir managed for 15 years for his in-laws. “He didn’t just spring out of nowhere into Yosemite,” she says.
Now that she’s finished this research, she’s found another whole new field to harvest: the global migration of plants, or how the world got into your garden. “I have counted how many plants from this country actually came from somewhere else,” she says.
Since the publication of The Olive in California, Dr. Taylor has had to take time from her passionate research to answer calls to give lectures. She doesn’t find this too stressful because of her experience in teaching medical students and addressing groups of doctors. “I’ve had a lot of pleasure learning all these things,” she says, “and I’m just happy that it is giving pleasure to so many.”