A rare fruit garden in the desert

Keitt mangoes, a cultivar native to Florida that grows in the Falkensteins’ backyard. David Blakeman/nyt

Jane Falkenstein’s home looks like any other single-family home in Arizona’s Salt River Valley — tan stucco, gravel lawn, two-car garage, shaggy palm tree.

The path leading to her front door gives the first indication that her home is something special. A mature plumeria tree with dozens of fragrant yellow and white flowers wraps around the trail. Its open windows emit the cries of birds, which carry light to the end of the cul-de-sac. Above his doorbell is a stained glass window that depicts a green Amazon parrot.

These eccentricities foreshadow, though they hardly prepare a visitor, the little miracle nestled in Mrs. Falkenstein’s garden – a dense jungle of rare fruit trees from Latin America and Asia in one of the hottest and driest in North America.

The architect of this backyard ecosystem was her husband, Dr. Alois Falkenstein Jr, a German immigrant, U.S. Air Force veteran, and ophthalmologist who began growing fruit plants that most Arizonans didn’t have. never tasted. His crops included jabuticaba berries, longans, medlar plums, pluerries, white sapotes, Keitt mangoes, limes, donut peaches, bergamot oranges, and Fujian Bai Mi figs, a species known colloquially as the name Nixon Peace Figs after Mao Zedong gave cuttings of the plant as a peace offering during the president’s trip to China in 1972.

Alois Falkenstein, who died in 2015 at the age of 68, was fluent in German and could read and write in several languages, said Jane Falkenstein, 73, adding that these skills came in handy in her work as a medical doctor. board and translator for diplomats. .

The funeral program for Dr. Alois Falkenstein, who died of cancer in 2015, surrounded by photos of plants he grew. David Blakeman/nyt

In his spare time, Dr. Al, as he was known, studied plants. “He has written many articles on gibberellic acid and fruit plant growth patterns,” she said. “He was a curious person and a quick learner.”

Falkenstein inaugurated his backyard garden when the couple moved into the house in 1981; he was frustrated with the lack of tropical fruits in nearby grocery stores. Years later, he traveled to San Diego with his sons, Alexander and Chris, to search for tropical fruit species for three-day weekends.

“My brother and I knew these trips weren’t meant to be fancy – they were meant to teach us things,” recalls Alexander, 34. “He would take us to museums and gardeners. He would talk to rare fruit growers about their favorite books and ideas. I could tell there was a lot of mutual respect and admiration there.

These trips allowed Falkenstein to bring dozens of plant cuttings back to the desert to propagate and apply the collective knowledge of his friends to his fledgling garden. Gradually, he transformed the arid land into a tropical microclimate. He built rows of shaded trellises, a chicken coop, a tool shed and a large greenhouse that his friends jokingly called his “shop of horrors”.

The greenhouse was his laboratory and gathering place, a carefully maintained space for the delicate process of growing tropical plants in the desert. Many of these plant varieties were the offspring of his frustrating pre-internet experiments with cross-pollination. When his dragon fruit blossoms opened for the evening, he put on a headlamp, retrieved one of his containers of pollen from the freezer, and meticulously pollinated his toughest plants with a cotton swab.

His greenhouse experiments resulted in the creation of several varieties of hybrid plants uniquely adapted to life in the desert. He gave one of the resulting dragon fruit varieties Alexander’s childhood nickname, Falco.

An aerial photo of Falkenstein House. David Blakeman/nyt

“When people asked me what my husband did, I told them he was a horticulturist,” Jane Falkenstein said. “I never said he was an ophthalmologist because he was very dedicated to his garden. It wasn’t his profession, but it was his love.”

In 2008, Falkenstein was diagnosed with cancer and told he had 18 months left. He lived another seven years. A few days after his death, Alexandre took over as caretaker of the garden, giving himself a year to figure out what to do with it.

“I knew that if we didn’t invest time in maintenance and strategy, the problem was going to grow exponentially,” he said. Working in the garden three days a week, he soon realized that he knew little about the art and science of growing rare fruits. Many plants in the garden required considerable attention. Shade and frequent pruning were essential. Freezing winter nights were also a big challenge.

Alexander Falkenstein turned to the Arizona Rare Fruit Growers, a group of amateur pomologists his father helped found in 1995. By January, the group had more than 5,000 Facebook fans; it regularly hosts events like “Mulberry Taste-Off!” and “What is RU growing and how to spread more!” Many of its senior members have fond memories of Falkenstein’s technical approach to the hobby and his gifts of fruit and plant cuttings.

Alexander Falkenstein pruning a tree in his father’s garden. photos: David Blakeman/nyt

For many rare fruit enthusiasts in the Phoenix area in the 1980s and 1990s, Falkenstein was the first to demonstrate that it was possible to grow these incredible plants in the desert.

“It was as natural as breathing for him,” said Ruth Ann Showalter, a longtime member of the producers’ organization. “He was a great teacher, and the band isn’t the same without him.”

In many ways, Alexander Falkenstein picked up where his father left off. He visits rare fruit growers in their homes and has his own rare fruit garden with mango, banana, loquat, peach and lemon trees. He gives all the fruits and shares what he has learned at grower meetings.

“The goal is to share all this knowledge and fruit,” he said. “The strategy is to develop things that I really enjoy so that I can continue everything.” (He recently gave several mangoes to Phoenix Suns executive chef Brendan Ayers, who used the fruit to make salsa for the team.)

Like many rare fruit growers in the Salt River Valley, Falkenstein fears worsening drought conditions will force them to change their approach.

“We try to minimize water loss by making sure our soil is healthy,” he said, adding that he had removed plants that require more water, including his father’s banana trees. “We use a lot of mulch and wood chips, which can result in a 30-50% reduction in water requirements.”

He tries to be realistic about his gardening – he can’t do much to keep the plants alive and the garden manageable for his mother.

In many ways, his efforts are a continuation of his father’s work. “My father had a great reputation which he acquired during his life,” he said. “If he were alive today, I think he would be proud to see how his generosity lives on.”

Mangoes in the backyard garden created by Dr. Alois Falkenstein. David Blakeman/nyt

Alexander Falkenstein. Her father was ophthalmologist Alois Falkenstein. David Blakeman/nyt