Se­ri­ous About Cit­rus

One man boasts a sweet col­lec­tion.


What­ever you do, don’t ask Gene Lester his fa­vorite va­ri­ety of cit­rus. The 85-year-old—who can be at turns crusty and charm­ing, and is still as sharp as a cle­men­tine is sweet—has been grow­ing cit­rus trees for nearly half a cen­tury. His 12-acre farm in the hills above Wat­sonville, Cal­i­for­nia, which in­cludes some 250 va­ri­eties, is the largest known pri­vate col­lec­tion of the fruits in the United States, ac­cord­ing to the Mon­terey Bay chap­ter of the Cal­i­for­nia Rare Fruit Grow­ers Inc. But Gene says he doesn’t like to use the word “fa­vorite” when re­fer­ring to his cit­rus va­ri­eties be­cause “it’s like say­ing who your fa­vorite child is.”

Still, he will talk up his pre­ferred species, the man­darin or­ange, which in­cludes clemen­tines and tan­ger­ines. “I guess I have about 50 va­ri­eties of man­darins and man­darin hy­brids, and they’re all dif­fer­ent; they all taste dif­fer­ent,” Gene says. “So those would be on the top of my list.

“Or­anges are an­other mat­ter,” he says. “I don't gen­er­ally grow or­anges be­cause I have lim­ited space and en­ergy to put into grow­ing them, so why would I spend the time grow­ing or­anges when I can go down to the store and I can buy a bag of them for a dol­lar?”

Gene is not by her­itage or school­ing an or­chardist. He grew up about

8 miles from down­town Los An­ge­les, in Al­ham­bra, Cal­i­for­nia, later study­ing math­e­mat­ics at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los An­ge­les. For nearly 34 years he worked in soft­ware de­vel­op­ment man­age­ment for IBM, his ca­reer tak­ing him from Stock­holm, Swe­den, to Florida, and then back to Cal­i­for­nia. It wasn’t un­til he moved to San Jose in 1974 that he be­gan his cit­rus col­lec­tion, mov­ing it to his cur­rent or­chard in Wat­sonville in the mid-1980s.

“I’m just a nat­u­ral col­lec­tor,” Gene says. “I col­lect a lot of things. I col­lect stamps and an­tique cars. I col­lect books. I col­lect com­put­ers. My par­ents were col­lec­tors, and that’s a nat­u­ral in­cli­na­tion that I have. If I see one and there’s more around to make a set, I tend to think I need to col­lect that set. It’s an ob­ses­sion.”

Gene grows more than cit­rus. At one time he also tended 500 va­ri­eties of ap­ple trees, al­though he’s let most of them go, call­ing it “too much work.” There are also a few pear, nec­tarine, apri­cot and plum trees in his or­chard, along­side his roughly 300 cit­rus trees. He doesn’t grow peaches, fear­ing peach leaf curl dis­ease, which is preva­lent in the re­gion. Gene does grow grape­fruit and pome­los, al­though cool nights in his area cause the rinds to thicken and mat­u­ra­tion to slow. He’s a fan of Meyer lemons as well. “They are ever­bear­ing,” he says. “There’s al­ways some­thing on the plant. They’re very juicy; they have a unique fla­vor and aroma, and they make won­der­ful pies.”

Rather than sell his cit­rus—a tough propo­si­tion when he only has one or two trees of each va­ri­ety, not enough for com­mer­cial dis­tri­bu­tion—Gene gives it away to friends and dur­ing the tours he hosts for or­ga­ni­za­tions like the Cal­i­for­nia Rare Fruit Grow­ers (CRFG). He sup­plies Man­resa, a restau­rant in nearby Los Gatos with a cov­eted three-star Miche­lin Guide rat­ing, with fruit for its an­nual cit­rus themed din­ner. Asked if he at­tends, Gene replies with good-na­tured blus­ter. “At­tend? I’m the guest of honor!”

Al­though he takes a sur­pris­ingly hands-off ap­proach to his or­chard— nei­ther amend­ing his clay soil nor us­ing much fer­til­izer—he does re­quire help from time to time, par­tic­u­larly since Parkin­son’s dis­ease has be­gun to make it dif­fi­cult for him to get around.

Vol­un­teers from CRFG pitch in with chores such as cut­ting back dead­wood, which has in­creased be­cause of the state’s mul­ti­year drought, and lay­ing down wood chips to help re­tain mois­ture, de­ter weeds and keep tree roots cool. They’ve also re­cently helped in­stall an over­head wa­ter­ing sys­tem, re­plac­ing the ir­ri­gation emit­ters that Gene says had been be­dev­il­ing him by clog­ging.

Gene may no longer work the land as he once did, but his love for it re­mains un­changed. “From my perch here above Mon­terey Bay,” he says, “I can see prob­a­bly a thou­sand square miles. I can see all the way to the cur­va­ture of the Earth. You know, I got a bonus that I didn’t know about when I bought this prop­erty. It’s on a ridge, at about 800 feet, and the heat from down below flows up this way. It cre­ates a very small area that we call the Ba­nana Belt. You can grow un­usual things here. I grow av­o­ca­dos; my neigh­bor has macadamia nuts. It’s re­ally a unique lo­ca­tion, and I wish I could say I had dis­cov­ered all that ahead of time and planned it, but it was re­ally just serendip­ity.”

“If I see one and there’s more around to make a set, I tend to think I need to col­lect that set.”

Th­ese man­darins are just one of about 250 va­ri­eties of cit­rus Gene Lester has amassed in his Cal­i­for­nia grove—a liv­ing mu­seum of sweet and tart.

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