The Salt
12:44 pm
Fri April 6, 2012

Guerrilla Grafters Bring Forbidden Fruit Back To City Trees

Originally published on Sat April 7, 2012 5:00 am

Spring means cherry, pear and apple blossoms. But in many metropolitan areas, urban foresters ensure those flowering fruit trees don't bear fruit to keep fallen fruit from being trampled into slippery sidewalk jelly.

But a group of fruit fans in the San Francisco Bay Area is secretly grafting fruit-bearing tree limbs onto those fruitless trees.

I visited the "crime scene" one recent day, but I can't tell you where it is because I was with the "criminals."

"If we say where it is, they could come after me," says Tara Hui, a fruit tree grafter. She's talking about city officials, who manage the trees and say it's illegal to have fruit trees on sidewalks.

So let's just say we're in some Bay Area city in a working-class neighborhood, at a line of pear trees that bear no pears.

Hui and two assistants pull out a knife, reach into a plastic bag filled with twigs no bigger than your pinkie, and cut from a fruit bearing pear tree. She says it's an Asian pear, and that she's grafting it onto a flowering pear tree.

They whittle a wedge into one end of their twig, then cut a groove into a similar-sized twig on the city tree. They join the two, like tongue and groove carpenters. And when their grafted twig eventually grows into a branch.

"There will be a much better looking tree that actually will provide fruit for people that come by," Hui says.

Hui's motives to break the law are straightforward.

"We don't have a supermarket and we have very few produce stores [here]," she says. "What better to alleviate scarcity of healthy produce in an impoverished area than to grow them yourself and to have it available for free."

Carla Short, an urban forester for the San Francisco Department of Public Works who's in charge of 103,000 public trees, has a different view of fruit trees.

"It gets very dangerous very quickly," Short says. "I mean the minute that fruit gets crushed on the sidewalk, it is slippery. We certainly don't want people to get injured."

She says fruit isn't forbidden everywhere, and the local government does encourage them in community gardens.

But that does put the city forester in an awkward position — advocating for publicly available fruit trees, but policing guerrilla grafters. Short says her team is looking for the guerrilla grafters but hasn't found them yet.

And what will they do if they find them? First, try to reason with the grafters, she says.

Meanwhile, Hui imagines these same streets in the coming years.

"Just taking an evening stroll, and then you see a fruit and you reach over and now you're nourished," says Hui.

So far, officials have yet to discover which of the city's decorative trees will become delicious trees because the grafts aren't yet old enough to bear fruit.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Spring means cherry, pear and apple blossoms. But in many metropolitan areas, those flowering fruit trees don't bear fruit, so it isn't trampled into slippery sidewalk jelly. Now, a group in the San Francisco area is secretly grafting fruit-bearing tree limbs onto those fruit-empty trees.

Reporter Lonny Shavelson snuck out with these guerrilla grafters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

LONNY SHAVELSON, BYLINE: We've arrived at the crime scene, and I can't tell you where it is because I'm with the criminals.

TARA HUI: If we say where this is, they could come after me.

SHAVELSON: That's fruit tree grafter Tara Hui. And those who might go after her would be city officials who say it's illegal to have fruit trees on sidewalks. So let's just say we're in some Bay Area city, in a lower working-class neighborhood at a line of pear trees that bear no pears.

HUI: So we're going to graft this one.

SHAVELSON: Hui and two assistants pull out a knife, reach into a plastic bag filled with twigs no bigger than your pinky, cut from a fruit bearing pear tree.

HUI: It's an Asian pear, and then we're grafting this onto a flowering pear tree.

SHAVELSON: They whittle a wedge into one end of their twig, then cut a groove into a similar-sized twig on the city tree. They join the two, like tongue and groove carpenters. And when their grafted twig eventually grows into a branch...

HUI: There will be a much better looking tree that actually will provide fruit for people that come by. All right, shall we move on?

SHAVELSON: Hui's motives to break the law are straightforward. In her own low-income area...

HUI: We don't have a supermarket and we have very few produce stores. What better to alleviate scarcity of healthy produce in an impoverished area than to grow them yourself, and to have it available for free?

CARLA SHORT: It gets very dangerous very quickly. I mean the minute that fruit gets crushed on the sidewalk, it is slippery. We certainly don't want people to get injured.

SHAVELSON: Carla Short is San Francisco's urban forester, in charge of 103,000 public trees.

SHORT: This is not a fruit-forbidden area. We just want to be clear about where it's appropriate to grow fruiting trees. And we do encourage them in community gardens.

SHAVELSON: Which puts the city forester in an awkward position: advocating for publicly available fruit trees, but policing guerrilla grafters.

Meanwhile, Hui imagines these same streets in the coming years.

HUI: Just taking an evening stroll and then you see a fruit, and you reach over and now you're nourished.

SHAVELSON: So far, officials have yet to discover which of the cities decorative trees have become delicious trees, because the grafts aren't yet old enough to bear fruit.

For NPR news, I'm Lonny Shavelson.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.