Bananas of Beachwood Canyon (and Los Feliz)

October 4, 2011 § 1 Comment

In his superb book, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World (Plume, 2008), Dan Koeppel explores the science, politics and history of this ubiquitous fruit in a way that can only be described as novelistic. The scope of the story is immense, and Koeppel tells it so compellingly that it has stuck in my mind ever since I finished reading it, ten months ago.

The only mistake in Banana, as far as I can see, is in the author’s biographical note, which reads:

[Koeppel] lives in Los Angeles, a place in whose vicinity nearly every kind of fruit–except bananas–was once grown.

As I told him, it’s not true. Los Angeles is warm enough for bananas, as many backyard gardeners and those at the Bel Air Hotel can attest. But bananas also used to be grown commercially–in Beachwood Canyon. Here’s a photo to prove it:

Banana trees at J.B. Rapp's Farm, Gower and Beachwood Drive, circa 1900/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Originally I had thought the photo was of Clausen’s Ranch, located just north of Rapp’s Farm. But Clausen grew citrus, while Rapp specialized in more exotic fare: pineapples, avocados and cherimoyas–and, apparently, bananas.

While Rapp might have been the sole commercial grower of bananas, none other than Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, grew bananas too. Here’s an old postcard of the trees on his estate in Laughlin Park (now Los Feliz):

Otis's Bananas in Laughlin Park/Courtesy Tommy Dangcil, Hollywood 1900-1950 in Vintage Postcards, Arcadia, 2002

As Koeppel writes in Banana, bananas require a frost-free climate in order to produce fruit. Not a problem: in the 6 years I’ve lived in Beachwood, there has been only one frost, a freak event that occurred in early 2006.

The reason we don’t see bananas trees in Hollywood anymore is the same reason we don’t see orange and lemon groves: all the farmland has been given over to buildings. But bananas once grew here; with enough space, they could grow again.

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