The search for Dr. D's perfect apple

The late orthodontist and horticulturist died before realizing his dream, but his hybrid trees live on thanks to the efforts of the California Rare Fruit Growers

jtarica@thetribunenews.comMay 6, 2012 

  • GROW YOUR OWN DR. D APPLE

    Bags of cuttings from Dr. John DeVincenzo’s apple orchard are available for free at Farm Supply, 224 Tank Farm Road, in San Luis Obispo. For more information, call 543-3751.

In a hidden plot tucked amid the orchards of See Canyon, Dr. John DeVincenzo pursued a quest to create the perfect apple.

Over several years, like a modern Johnny Appleseed, the longtime orthodontist and owner of Gopher Glen Apple Farm meticulously crossed popular varieties of the fruit, hand-pollinating his trees, time and again, one by one.

From those apples, he gathered thousands of seeds, which he planted and then moved to his secret nursery.

By late 2007, 3,000 baby apple trees pushed toward the sun in Dr. D’s orchard, and he invited friends at the California Rare Fruit Growers to see the growing but not yet fruitful results of his efforts, which he hoped one day would yield an apple signature to San Luis Obispo and the Central Coast.

Unfortunately, that part of the story has a sad ending, when Dr. D died suddenly two years later, never seeing his trees reach maturity or yield his hoped-for fruit.

Fast-forward to fall 2011.

Two years had passed since Dr. DeVincenzo’s death, and the family had new plans for the apple nursery, whose trees now stood as tall as a man but still were not old enough to bear fruit.

They wanted to subdivide the property and sell it, but before the bulldozers arrived, Sally DeVincenzo, Dr. D’s widow, reached out again to the California Rare Fruit Growers and asked if they would like to save the trees.

Enter Joe Sabol.

A retired agriculture professor who taught at Cal Poly for 30 years, Sabol gathered 12 of his fruit-grower friends and headed to See Canyon.

Because the trees were now too numerous and unwieldy to transplant, the Rare Fruit Growers did the only thing they could to preserve them: They trimmed thousands of tops, harvesting the genetic material in bunches of pencil-sized twigs — in essence picking up the baton passed from the late Dr. DeVincenzo.

And, because the orchard was not well marked, their samples — called scions — were now a mystery more than ever.

Many of the bundles were merely marked “Row D,” “Row F” or whatever, with no indication of the originating apple varieties.

“The cuttings became our little gold mine,” Sabol says.

But, as they say, the story doesn’t stop there.

With thousands of scions, it was going to take a lot more than 12 gardening buffs to fully continue Dr. D’s dream.

So Sabol came up with a nifty idea: They would share the cuttings with as many people as possible — via the local chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers — and have a contest to see who could grow the best variety.

Away they went, assembling hundreds of little bags of Dr. D’s scion wood, with six to eight twigs per bag, telling each new owner, “Go home and graft this to your apple tree. … And then, we want you to bring one apple to a meeting in 2013, and let’s have a tasting party.”

Sabol, who is quick with a grin and as likable a person as you’ll meet, positively bubbles with excitement at the thought, imagining tables full of Dr. D apples, each unique and grown on trees from throughout San Luis Obispo County and beyond.

“We didn’t know the names of these,” he says. “They are still unknown. It’s a big contest to see who can find the apple that Dr. DeVincenzo was looking for.”

In fact, he’s nurturing 50 cuttings himself.

To help the cause, at a recent meeting of the San Luis Obispo Kiwanis Club, Sabol shared the story and the challenge once again, demonstrating how one actually goes about attaching what looks like a dead stick from one tree to the root stock or branch of another.

And because he’s still got lots of bundles of Dr. D twigs to distribute, Sabol offered a new idea to get the public involved.

He has delivered several bags of sticks to the San Luis Obispo Farm Supply, who will keep them safe in a refrigerator and give them away free to anyone who wants one.

All you have to do is ask, and you can join the party.

After watching Sabol, the grafting seems like a simple process. I think I can do it.

And in fact at home right now, we have a robust apple tree whose particular variety of fruit I’m not too wild about. Maybe I can graft a few of these scions and grow some better apples.

Maybe our tree can deliver Dr. DeVincenzo’s ideal fruit.

“He planted lots of seeds from his favorite crosses,” Sabol says. “And they all grew, thousands of seeds. (But) he never got to taste a single apple.”

For her part, Sally DeVincenzo believes her late husband would be pleased by the efforts to carry on his pursuit.

“John had such enthusiasm about everything he did,” she wrote in an email. “And an apple breeding program was what he wanted us to do when he retired from his orthodontist work. … I am very moved by everyone's efforts, and it will be exciting if even just one apple is discovered to be outstanding.”

I’m in. How about you?

Joe Tarica is the presentation editor at The Tribune and writes the Joetopia blog at sanluisobispo.com. Reach him at jtarica@thetribunenews.com.

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