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.

The Agrarian Origins of Beachwood Canyon

November 27, 2010 § 1 Comment

The O.E. Roberts Orchard, left, and Clausen's Ranch, right, at the mouth of Beachwood Canyon, c. 1890/All photos courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Although many people think Hollywood sprang into existence at the start of the movie industry, its history as a settlement pre-dates not only the 20th century but the Spanish Colonial period. The area was settled ten thousand or more years ago by Tongva Native Americans, some of whom were still living in Beachwood Canyon at the turn of the 20th century. (It was the Tongva who paddled out to meet Cabrillo’s ship in 1542; they truly were the first Angelenos.)

During the Colonial period, the future Hollywood was part of the San Fernando Mission–its outlying pastures, on which sheep grazed. In 1887, Harvey and Daeida Wilcox founded their Christian utopia as an agrarian village–one that had more orchards than houses. 19th- century Hollywood produced excellent lemons, poor oranges (used for orange soda, not fresh juice), flowers immortalized by the painter Paul deLongpre, and some rather exotic fruits and vegetables. Among the crops that were grown in Hollywood’s orchards were bananas, figs, apricots, avocados, dates, pineapples and chermoyas.

It was this  bounty, made possible by a frostless climate and more than 300 sunny days each year, that attracted the Theosophical Society to Beachwood Canyon in 1911. The Theosophists were vegetarian, and thus naturally drawn to agricultural self-sufficiency; the perfect climate of Southern California was a major reason for their relocation from Chicago. In a letter to Annie Besant, then president of the Theosophical Society, A.P. Warrington, the head of the American branch, wrote: 

We can make the spot a veritable Garden of Eden, because….the region we have chosen happens to be one of those rare spots that are [sic] absolutely frostless, and so we can raise anything…

The Krotona Colony included fields and gardens– presumably worked by its members, though I’ve seen no photographs proving it.

The mystery in all of this is how these farmers managed to coax crops out of  Beachwood’s soil. Thin and nutrient-poor, it sits atop solid granite, the result of which is geological stability–we barely feel earthquakes–and the constant appearance of rocks and stones. Since moving to Beachwood 5 years ago, I’ve struggled to make something of my garden, despite assiduous efforts at soil enrichment. Although roses do well with regular applications of compost and fertilizer, vegetables grow with limited success, and only in boxes. Interestingly, the ten fruit trees I’ve planted have stayed true to historical precedent, producing terrible oranges (if any), but wonderful lemons, peaches and apricots. This year, I planted a green gage plum whose first crop I’m eagerly anticipating; more on it, and the “Pineapple Tract,” in a future post. 

Banana trees in Beachwood Canyon, circa 1900/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Additional Sources:

Krotona of Old Hollywood, 1866-1913, Vol. I, by Joseph E. Ross. Montecito, CA: El Montecito Oaks Press, 1989.

The Story of Hollywood, by Gregory Paul Williams. Los Angeles, CA:  BL Press, LLC, 2005.

Los Angeles City Archives.

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