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 Pineapple Tract of Beachwood Canyon

September 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

Clausen's Ranch, which includes the future Krotona Hill, c. 1895/All photos courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

While doing research for my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign,” I found my way to the Los Angeles City Archives, which keeps bound volumes of the many laws enacted by Hollywood during its brief period (1903-1910) as an incorporated, self-governing city. While I was there, I also studied early 20th-century Hollywood maps, and was fascinated to see the area north of Franklin between Beachwood and Gower labeled “The Pineapple Tract.” 

The name refers to the tract’s former incarnation as the farm of J.B. Rapp. (See photo below.) He began as a lemon grower but expanded into more exotic fruits–dates, avocados and pineapples, among others. Although it is likely that these fruits had their origins on local ranchos, Rapp was among the first to grow them commercially. At a time when oranges and lemons were rare delicacies for most Americans, pineapples and avocados must have caused a sensation.

Hollywood’s frost-free climate made the cultivation of these crops possible, but it took vision to grow things for which there was little apparent demand. Rapp succeeded on several levels: he grew and created a market for exotic fruits, while in the process enhancing Hollywood’s reputation–and property values–as an American Garden of Eden. Among those drawn by the promise of year-round fresh produce was the Theosophical Society, which established itself  just north of the Pineapple Tract in 1911. In a letter to Annie Besant, A.P. Warrington, head of the American Branch, rhapsodized about the Canyon’s farming potential:

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….

Unbeknownst to Warrington, Beachwood also boasted thin soil and an abundance of produce-devouring wildlife. This may explain the fact that the Krotona Colony’s map shows several ornamental gardens and a decided lack of farm plots. As a resident whose efforts to grow vegetables have been thwarted by squirrels and tree rats, I sympathize.

Next time: bananas!

Pineapples on J. B. Rapp's Farm/Courtesy Tommy Dangcil, Hollywood 1900-1950 in Vintage Postcards


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