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A Fruitful Century

Introduction: Preparing the Ground

A fruitful century

Fruit has grown in British Columbia since time immemorial. The first European explorers, and the ancestral Indians before them, found wild crabapples, thimbleberries, wild strawberries, and pin cherries waiting to be picked and eaten-if they reached them before the birds and the squirrels. Some of our placenames commemorate these natural gifts: Cherry Creek, Blaeberry River, Cheam (“Wild Strawberry Place” in the local Indian language), Olalla (“Berries” in Chinook dialect).

The origins of cultivated fruit are more recent. The seeds of the first apple trees in the Pacific Northwest were planted at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver (now Vancouver, Washington) in 1826.

The first fruit trees grown on the Columbia sprang from the seeds of an apple, eaten at a London banquet, given to Captain Aemilius Simpson on his departure to the northwest coast.One of the ladies, more in jest than in earnest, dropped the seeds from an apple brought in with the dessert, into Captain Simpson’s pocket telling him to plant them when he arrived at his Pacific wilderness.Captain Simpson . . . forgot the incident until dining at Fort Vancouver, wearing the same waistcoat he had not worn since the London party, found the seeds playfully put there by his lady friend. Taking them from his pocket he gave them to Bruce, the gardener, who carefully planted them.

The daughter of Dr. John McLoughlin, Chief Factor at Fort Vancouver, many years later recalled the first fruit:

My father and Mr. Pambrun and Simpson were together, and they three planted them in little boxes. They kept the little boxes in the store somewhere, where they could not be touched, and put glass over them. . . . By-and-by my father came to me and said, “Now come and see, we are going to have some apples.” They were all green, and by-and-by we got apples. . . . My father used to watch the garden so that no one should touch them. At first there was only one apple on the tree, and that everyone must taste. . . . It was ripe; the only apple on the little tree. It was a great treat, for everyone had just a little slice. There were a good many it had to go round among.

The Fort Vancouver trees thrived in the mild climate. (One of them, now over 160 years old, still survives.) By 1832 the orchard was doing so well that a visiting American ornithologist, John Townsend, wrote of the farm that:

the greatest curiosity, however, is the apples, which grow on small trees, the branches of which would be broken without the support of props. So profuse is the quantity of fruit that the limbs are covered with it, and it is actually packed together precisely in the same manner that onions are attached to ropes when they are exposed for sale in our markets.

Apples were soon joined in the orchard by other fruits. In 1836, when the first American settlers crossed the plains to Oregon, the Fort’s garden was sufficiently lush to gladden one of them, Mrs. Narciss Whitman, who wrote in her diary on September 12, 1836:

What a delightful place this is; what a contrast to the rough, barren sand plains through which we have so recently passed! Here we find fruit of every description-apples, peaches, grapes, pears, plums, and fig trees in abundance; also cucumbers, melons, beans, peas, beets, cabbages, tomatoes and every kind of vegetable, too numerous to be mentioned.

Commercial horticulture in the Pacific Northwest dates from 1847, when Henderson Luelling brought more than 800 grafted fruit trees in two wagons full of soil across the uninhabited Prairies from Iowa to Milwaukee, Oregon. He established the first nursery in the region, in partnership with William Meek who also brought a small stock of fruit trees across by wagon. Seth Luelling (or Lewelling, as he spelled it after 1882), Henderson’s younger brother, arrived in Oregon in 1850 after a stint in the California gold diggings. He worked for his brother in the nursery, buying him out in 1854. Seth Luelling was a pioneer fruit breeder, originating the “Black Republican” cherry in 1860, the “Bing” cherry, named after a Chinese worker, in 1875, and the “Golden” prune in 1876.

The Fort Vancouver apple tree, 1975Courtesy Penticton Museum

Negotiations between the United States and Great Britain over the settlement of the Oregon boundary dispute made it clear to the Hudson’s Bay Company that at least the southern part of the territory would be awarded to the United States. Therefore, the Company began shifting its operations and its headquarters north, so as to remain in British territory. Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island was established in 1843 to become the new port and headquarters, while other forts were set up in the Fraser Valley at Hope and Langley on the new route to the interior posts. The Company began agriculture in a small way around these establishments to provide supplies for its servants and employees. A few fruit trees were planted at the forts. At Fort Victoria, the Hudson’s Bay Company laid out a six acre orchard of apples, pears, and peaches in 1846.7 John Tod and several other Company officials included orchards on their private farms in the 1850s, while the influx of miners during the Gold Rush of 1858 made Victoria a boom town and encouraged planting. By 1865 there were a number of orchards from 5 to 25 acres on the Island. The first export of apples from Vancouver Island to mainland British Columbia took place in 1861, when 1000 pounds from the orchard planted by John Work was shipped on the Otter to New Westminster. But production grew more slowly than demand, and for many years British Columbia was an importer of fruit. “Merchants imported fruit from Oregon, Washington and California, where there was a regular and systematic supply to be depended upon for market requirements. Hence the local product, not being sufficient for the trade, was rather more of an intrusion than a welcome factor.”

John Tod of VictoriaCourtesy PABC

Saltspring Island, with its favourable climate, had fruit plantings early, and by 1860 Jonathan Begg was operating a nursery which promised to supply “Fruit and Ornamental Trees, together with Hedgings, Roses, Flowers, etc., on his farm at Salt Spring Island”. Fruit is still grown on Saltspring Island, but it has never expanded into a large industry because of the lack of water for irrigation.

The first apple trees on the mainland were planted by the Reverend E. White, a Methodist missionary, at his parsonage at New Westminster in 1859.

Hugh McRoberts, the first farmer in Richmond, must have planted his orchard soon after he settled there in 1861, for by the fall of 1866, his trees were cropping, as was noted in the New Westminster British Columbian:

Mr. McRoberts of “Richmond Farm” has already brought to market a very large quantity of as fine plums as can be produced in any country and he has still to gather in the fruit of some six hundred apple and pear trees which are, as we learn, bending under a most prolific yield of excellent fruit.

A number of other orchards were planted in the lower mainland during the 1860s and 1870s, when we first hear about many of the names which later became important in the B.C.F.G.A.: Thomas Cunningham at New Westminster, Isaac Kipp at Chilliwack, M.J. Henry who started a nursery at Mission, and E. Hutchison and William Henry at Delta.

Commercial orcharding moved into the Interior following the trail of the Cariboo gold seekers, who would pay high prices for any sort of fresh produce. In 1862 even potatoes cost $1.15 a pound at Barkerville, and eggs were two for three dollars. An Italian named Lorenzo is reported to have started growing apples near Lillooet in 1862, but the best-known early orchard on the Cariboo Road was that of Thomas G. Earl of Lytton. Earl planted his first fruit trees in 1864 and by 1875 had 300 trees bearing fruit. This he sold at nine cents a pound. That winter he experienced one of those devastating freezes which have had so much effect on the fruit industry in British Columbia, and lost 260 trees.”

Rev. E. White of New Westminster.Courtesy PABC

Nicholas Hare, father of Alex Hare of the notorious McLean Gang, planted around a hundred apple and plum trees at Cherry Creek between Kamloops and Savona in 1865. C.A. Semlin at Cache Creek grew apples and pears successfully, and William Fortune planted an orchard at Tranquille, near Kamloops, in the 1860s.

The early settlers in the Okanagan concentrated their agricultural efforts on cattle ranching and grain growing, for several reasons. Neither cattle nor grain required as large an initial expenditure as fruit, nor as long a wait for returns. At first, large tracts of open range land were available cheaply, thus encouraging extensive agriculture. Not until the supply of land became limited, and thus expensive, was attention given to intensive forms of farming which required less acreage. Again, cattle and grain were necessities to the men in the gold fields. Fruit required a larger market area, and cheaper transportation, because it was not a “necessity”, and per capita consumption was much smaller. Fruit also needed a railway or other rapid, gentle transport systems to get it to market. Cattle could travel on the hoof and grain could stand a long, slow wagon journey over rough roads, but fruit was perishable. These factors help to explain why fruit growing did not come into prominence in the Okanagan before the 1890s.

The early settlers planted small fruit gardens to supply themselves after they found that fruit trees would grow well in the Okanagan climate. The first planting was that of the Catholic Fathers at Okanagan Mission in 1862; Thomas Ellis planted the first trees at Penticton in 1874, Alfred Postill in the Kelowna area in 1876. George Whelan made a fairly large planting at Ellison around 1884, with stock from Father Pandosy’s orchard.

Thomas and Wilhelmina Ellis of Penticton.Courtesy Penticton Museum

Just south of the border, one of the characters of Washington folklore, Hiram F. “Okanogan” Smith, planted an orchard sometime in the early 1860s. Several of these trees are still alive.

F.X. Richter planted the first orchard in the Similkameen at Cawston around 1880: a one-acre Thomas and Wilhelmina Ellis of Penticton. Courtesy Penticton Museum block of mostly apples, which included such varieties as Red Astrachan, Rambeau, Golden Russet, and the Orkney Belle.

He went to New Westminster and at William Clarkson’s nursery bought as many trees as he could load on pack-horses over the long Hope trail. Eager for early returns, he bought four or five year stock, some all of eight feet long, and the unwieldy and unfamiliar cargo irked the animals. They, however, were early enthusiastic camp, he found the trees denuded of most of their greenery and their tops eaten off.

Penticton’s first cherry tree, planted at the Ellis homestead in 1873 (photographed in 1912).Courtesy Penticton Museum

“Soon every farmer had his little plot containing two or three varieties of bearing fruit trees.” But these were not commercial orchards. Surplus fruit might be sold to the neighbours, but apart from that there were no markets. Later, when commercial fruit growing was contemplated, these fruit gardens were cited as evidence that fruit trees would grow and produce bountifully in the Okanagan.

Vignette: The Orchard at Okanagan Mission

Catholic missionaries of the Oblate Order first came to the Pacific Northwest in 1847 and concentrated their efforts on missions to the Indians of the Columbia River area. One of their missions was built at Ahtanum in the Yakima Valley, where Fathers Chirouse and Pandosy and Brother Blanchet planted a garden and some apple trees.1 But conditions for the Oblates in the United States became difficult because they championed the rights of the Indians against the rapacity of the increasing numbers of American settlers, and after the Indian War of 1855-1858 the hostility of the Americans caused the Oblates to transfer their missionary activities north of the 49th parallel.

When Fathers Pandosy and Richard established their Mission of the Immaculate Conception on Okanagan Lake, near what is now Kelowna, in 1859, they had to grow their own food or starve. Not only was their Oblate missionary Order poor, but since they were the first European settlers in the area, there was no one from whom to purchase supplies even if they had money. Once their farm was producing sufficient grain, cattle, and vegetables for their needs, they turned their attention to horticulture. Their first fruit trees were apple seedlings they brought from St. Mary’s Mission on the Fraser in 1862.

Father Pandosy.Courtesy Kelowna Centennial Museum

One of these trees continued to fruit until killed by the famous freeze of November, 1955. Fortunately, Dr. Don V. Fisher of the Summerland Experimental Station took scions from it before it died, and grafted over new trees which were planted at Summerland and at the restored Pandosy Mission Historical Site. He describes the seedling apple as “a very large, green, late-maturing and late-keeping fruit of fair quality”.

As time went on, the Fathers expanded their orchard, planting other fruits and named varieties of apples-among them the Fallawater, which Anthony Casorso, who grew up just across Mission Creek, remembered as “a beautiful apple, deep red, shaped like a Delicious-a good winter apple”.4 Nursery stock was purchased at Olympia and brought up the Columbia to the Okanagan by canoe/ As the first, and for some time the only, orchard in the area, the Okanagan Mission planting impressed itself firmly on the memory of the children of the early settlers. Bernard Lequime, who came at age four to the area with his parents in 1861, in later life was certain that the trees growing in the old, abandoned orchard at the former Mission could not be same ones he remembered from his childhood. “The apple trees the priests first planted grew to be enormous trees. They have since been removed, when, and by whom, I do not remember. The trees there now bearing the small under-sized apples must be of a subsequent planting.”

When the other settlers in the area began to plant their own small orchards, the stock they ordered from commercial nurseries outside the Okanagan introduced new varieties-and new pests. Insects such as the aphid were brought in with the nursery stock.This was resented by old-timers like Father Richard, who proceeded to call one “tenderfoot” to account when he found him dipping the tips of the young trees in a concoction of soaked plug tobacco, soap and water. “You newcomers bring bad bugs to the country,” complained the priest. “At the Mission, if we found one, it was squeezed with our fingers and we had no trouble. Now, everybody gets green bugs.”

Okanagan Mission apple tree.Courtesy Kelowna Centennial Museum

Father Pandosy, the heart of the Okanagan Mission, died February 6, 1891, of pneumonia caught on a mid-winter trip to Keremeos to perform a marriage. Not long after his death, the Oblates decided that with the improved transportation by rail and steamer in the Okanagan, the establishment at Okanagan Mission was no longer needed to serve their flock, who could now be tended by a priest travelling down from the Mission at Kamloops. In 1896 the Oblates sold the Mission Ranch.

As far as fruit was concerned, completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885 did not immediately change the situation. The fifty miles from Vernon, basically the northern limit of fruit culture, to the railway at Sicamous was much farther than fruit could be easily carried. Access to new markets encouraged the expansion of grain growing; the Okanagan gained a reputation as a fine wheat region. This development of grain can F.X. Richter of Caivston. Courtesy Penticton Museum be seen to be a precursor to fruit growing, however, for grain growing is farming rather than ranching. It is one step away from the unorganized, extensive grazing of cattle towards the more capital-based varieties of intensive agriculture.

Development plans were soon afoot to extend a railway line into the Okanagan. The Shuswap and Okanagan Railway was chartered in 1886, but construction did not begin until 1890 and was not completed from Sicamous through Vernon to Okanagan Lake until May of 1892. With prospects of proper transportation, discussion of horticulture began to appear in references to the Okanagan. G.W. Henry of Port Hammond declared at the B.C.F.G.A. convention in 1892:

There is a spot in British Columbia . . . where winter apples can be produced that will, I believe, surpass even those of Ontario-that is the famed Okanagan Valley, for I believe that the fruit will be as large and the yield as prolific as here, and the appearance and quality equal to Ontario with a more certain surety of a good crop each year.

But this was all speculation; there were no commercial orchards in the Okanagan, plantings in most places would require the expense of irrigation, and any serious fruit grower was stepping out into the unknown. Most were content to stick to tried methods. An 1893 official guidebook of British Columbia put cattle ranching and wheat farming ahead of fruit culture in its discussions of the Okanagan,28 while an 1891 article in the Victoria Daily Colonist described the territory served by the Shuswap and Okanagan Railway as “preeminently the great wheat and grain district of the province” and did not even mention fruit.