When I arrive at Roskruge Bilingual K-8’s spacious campus, Moses Thompson is tending the campus’s fruit trees—quince, fig, pomegranate, and grape. The trees are clones—exact genetic copies—grafted from cuttings from Mission Garden, and they provide lush shade for the school’s vegetable garden and chicken coop.
This is ground zero for a new generation to learn and experience the history of the Sonoran Desert. Students are learning not only how non-native plants arrived in Baja Arizona, but also how to clone and plant fruit trees adapted to our desert climate. Eventually, they’ll get to taste the fruits of their labor, trying the heritage breeds that grow from cloned trees.
Thompson works as a school garden and sustainability program coordinator, a joint appointment between the University of Arizona and Tucson Unified School District. After heading the pilot program for the Mission Garden fruit tree cloning project at TUSD’s Manzo Elementary, he took the trees to Roskruge.
“Little time machines” is what Thompson calls the trees, as every cultivar is a direct descendant from the oldest living cultivars from the Spanish Colonial period in the 18th century. “It’s not just about preserving the genetic heritage of the trees; it’s really about preserving the heritage of a community,” says Thompson. Between Manzo and Roskruge, the students will clone 480 cuttings this year. A handful of the cuttings will be planted on school grounds, while some will go home with students to plant in their own backyards. The rest will be returned to Mission Garden to expand the orchards and vineyards of this cultural heritage park that demonstrates more than 4,000 years of agriculture in the Tucson Basin.
“The value is to tell the story behind the plants,” says Jesús Garcia, who works as an education specialist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and volunteers at Mission Garden. He calls the garden an “outdoor laboratory for children and adults to learn about their cultural heritage.”
Garcia says that his role in the TUSD-Mission Garden collaboration has been telling stories, “especially stories that span the border, to bring those traditions back, to bring what is happening south of the border, as a kind of cultural broker,” he says. “Across the border these traditions are still very much alive. We are trying to revive, reconstruct, what Tucson used to be 100 years ago … to pass it on over here.” Garcia is also collecting oral history stories about the heritage fruits, including recipes and information about how to prepare and store them.
The seed for the fruit project was planted in 2010, when Garcia paid a visit to Manzo Elementary to check out Thompson’s project cloning native shrubs for habitat restoration. As Mission Garden was being built, Garcia and Thompson began looking into a partnership between the school and garden. In October of 2013, Mission Garden and Manzo Elementary formally collaborated to initiate the educational propagation program, focusing this time on food production.
Expanding the program to Roskruge necessitated finding an enthusiastic teacher and principal to support the project. The principle was José Olivas; the teacher, Eric Flewelling, who teaches eighth grade science and sustainability. Through his sustainability class, students designed and built a school garden, implemented school-wide recycling, composting, and water harvesting, tended chickens, cultivated worms, and grew seedlings for the garden. Through data collection and research about the heirloom trees, teachers hope to get their students thinking scientifically. This is “a culturally relevant way to teach math and science,” says Thompson.
“The class is driven by natural cycles,” says Flewelling. “The school year, the planting seasons, chicken living, rain … there’s lots of learning, but even more action.” As a result of their hands-on activities, they “develop a land ethic, understand the deep and broad interconnectedness of everything,” he says. “They consider their waste, follow the path of ants, make food, dream, and build.”
To create a clone, fruit trees are pruned when dormant and the cuttings are potted in a coconut peat media, a sustainable alternative to peat moss; they’re then placed on a misting bench, which keeps the cutting alive long enough to develop roots. When the cuttings start producing new growth and foliage, it signals that root development is occurring and they are transplanted into potting soil.
Roskruge students have responded enthusiastically to the tree-cloning project, which began with a field trip to Mission Garden, where students learned how to clone trees and heard about the long history of agriculture along the Santa Cruz River. “The kids are pumped to take some of our clones home and plant them, particularly after a tasting session of all their fruits,” says Flewelling. “They’re also searching for heritage plants at home, in Nana’s yard, and in their historic neighborhoods.”
His eighth grade students say it best.
“The thing I learned and thought was cool is that you can simply cut a branch off and plant it and there is a possibility that it can grow. It really did surprise me. It was interesting and amazing knowing that roots can grow from a branch, and seeing flowers blossom from it. This completely blew my mind!” says Alexis.
Izzy says, “I learned how the non-native trees got here. The Spaniards that came to Arizona not only brought new clothes and diseases but also brought new trees. One of the trees they brought was fig. They brought so many other exotic trees and plants. I also learned how to clone trees, which, in my opinion, was the coolest thing I learned.”
Dante adds, “I learned to get in touch with nature more and use social media less because nature might not be here for a long time and Facebook will.”
Material costs for the projects at Manzo and Roskruge are supported by Wilson Produce, a Nogales-based produce distributer. The heritage fruit tree project is about so much more than “simply propagating fruit trees,” says James Martin, a special projects manager at Wilson Produce. “We [as a fourth-generation family business] are looking to the future; as supporters of the Mission Garden fruit project, we aim to respect the past.”
“The program at Mission Garden has brought many children and their families into the garden to discover and recover a connection to our community and our shared heritage through learning about Tucson’s deep agricultural history and tasting some of the nearly forgotten fruits and recipes of their grandmothers and great-grandmothers,” says Mission Garden’s community outreach coordinator and garden supervisor, Dena Cowan. “Not only are they learning the basic science of plant growth and propagation, and how to carry out scientific experiments, they are doing this in a context that makes the learning meaningful and tangible. They are learning to become the stewards of a priceless legacy: the taste of history.”
Another student, Maryna, liked getting to “experience our culture and the traditions our ancestors had,” she says. “My grandfather has one of the fig trees and couldn’t believe there were more when I told him about the field trip. Being out in the Mission Garden was sort of like taking a step back in time. I learned about my past and how my ancestors got to taste the true fruit and eat not just processed fruit gummies that say ‘100 percent fruit.’ I also liked that we got to be part of the experiment.”
Apart from educating the children and their families about Tucson’s edible heritage, the program is contributing to a renaissance of these trees in local backyards, schoolyards, and community gardens, in Tucson as well as in neighboring communities like Ajo and Phoenix.
Thompson says he’d “love to grow the program into other schools—it’s culturally relevant, doesn’t require much space or permanent infrastructure, and it’s functional.”
He hopes to expand the project to Tucson High Magnet School, providing continuity for the students from Roskruge, many of whom attend high school at Tucson High.
Scattered in schools throughout the city, these heritage fruit trees can also create another kind of continuity—a continuity of culture, of shared history and a hope for a more delicious future. ✜
Mission Garden. Open Saturdays 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. or by appointment. 929 W. Mission Lane. 520.777.9270.
Lili DeBarbieri is a freelance writer based in Tucson.