“Dedicated to the appreciation, preservation and propagation of heritage edible and ornamental perennials from the Sierra”
Felix Gillet, a nurseryman of the gold rush days, was the first to introduce hundreds of significant plants into California and American Agriculture, many of which are still grown today. The mission of the Felix Gillet Institute (the FGI), a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization, is to properly place Gillet in the history of California and United States agriculture through a thorough process of research and education. FGI will assess and document the impact his actions had on the growth and presence of agriculture in the United States today. FGI will educate the agriculture community about his life and its implications. It is important to educate farmers and gardeners about the many tree and plant species he introduced because they provide valuable genetic material for propagation of excellent food, fiber and ornamental crops with great hardiness, resistance to disease and insects, excellent culinary qualities, and longevity. FGI will identify the sites of historic Gillet introduced perennial plants, evaluate their crops, propagate the cream of these varieties and species, and reintroduce these plants into modern agriculture.
The FGI will accomplish this by:
Documenting Gillet’s impact in California and U.S. agriculture.
This will be accomplished by identifying and evaluating the heirloom fruits, nuts, grapes, berries and ornamentals that he brought to the Sierra foothill’s region during the gold rush period of the 1860’s – 1908. These plants have survived and provided food and fiber for more than 100 years with little or no care; true permaculture plants. We intend to document his important introductions including almonds, walnuts, filberts, chestnuts, wine grapes, table grapes, strawberries, prunes, plums, apples, pears, raspberries, roses and other important plants now in commerce.
FGI will map and catalogue a full inventory of all known original plant and tree species imported and innovated by Gillet in California and the Pacific Northwest.
FGI will complete documentation of Gillet’s life work from all known sources of information on his work and writings by research in State, University, private, and historical libraries in California, Oregon and Washington.
Educating the public about Gillet’s work
FGI will summarize found documents in the form of essays and articles that will be submitted to California History and Agriculture publications. The project will provide historical documentation for the University of California, the State Dept. of Food and Agriculture, and other California and western U.S. Agriculture associations.
FGI will establish a website providing information for the public, plant breeders, historians and others. This will catalog his work and introductions and provide access to detailed information from all of FGI’s research. Gillet’s writings, articles and plant propagation and cultivation information will be included. Some of these techniques have been all but forgotten, but the FGI will recover and educate on their uses today.
FGI will perform public education through FFA, Farm Bureau, California State and University agriculture education departments about Felix Gillet by introducing to them primary information that has yet to be collected.
FGI will establish the Felix Gillet Nursery in Nevada County, California in order to propagate and promote Gillet’s work. We intend to hold workshops and seminars on heirloom varieties, plant breeding, culinary evaluation and methodologies, plant propagation and more. This nursery will provide plant material and education to potentially thousands of growers all over the U.S
In the history of Fruit and Nut Growing in the Pacific Northwest, Felix Gillet holds an honorable and unique place. He is known as the father of most of the perennial crop agriculture in California and the Western U.S.
Gillet was born in France in 1835 and came to the United States in 1852. He arrived in California in 1858, and settled in Nevada City in 1859. Initially working as a barber, he became a nurseryman and established his “Barren Hill” Nursery in 1861, one of the first fruit nurseries on the west coast of the United States. He ran it until his death in 1908. C. E. Parsons bought the Gillet nursery after Gillet died in 1908, renaming it the Felix Gillet Nursery, and introduced seedling and grafted chestnuts from the original ‘colossal’ tree, which now stands at 70 feet tall with a trunk circumference of 14 feet. In 1968, this was thought to be the oldest continuously operating nursery in California. Gillet imported and bred literally thousands of varieties of plants that are commonly grown in agriculture and horticulture to this day. Many of his original introductions are still thriving in foothill towns, mining camps and homesteads throughout California. Gillet wrote extensively on the cultivation of a wide variety of crops, and was considered an authority on many crops during his lifetime of work. Although he provided plant materials and much knowledge to growers all over the world, he is not well known today.
An important pioneer grower and breeder, Gillet was interested primarily in deciduous fruit and nut trees. He personally brought many perennials never before seen to California and was pivotal in the founding of the State’s agricultural industry. Gillet is also credited with providing the nursery stock that established the hazelnut, walnut, prune and wine grape industries in the Northwest. He introduced hard-shelled walnuts from his native France to Northern California, where the softer shelled varieties proved too delicate for the colder winters, thus establishing the California and Oregon walnut industry. He provided the plant material that established these industries in California and the Pacific Northwest: Almonds, Walnuts, Filberts, Chestnuts, Cherries, Apples, Pears, Prunes, Wine Grapes, Table Grapes, Raspberries, Strawberries and others. His stock was primarily introduced from French sources, which he imported by the ton. He also imported and bred plants from Italy, England, Germany, Spain, Afghanistan, Persia, Korea, China, Japan, Portugal and other countries. He grew Bonne Bouche strawberries that measured from 4 to 6 inches in diameter, and provided them to Mr. Etter of Humboldt County, who bred them with the native California beach strawberry, thus creating the basis for the entire West Coast strawberry industry. The FGI will document many other important plant introductions from Gillet’s work including the “French” prune, the “Bing” Cherry, the “Thompson” seedless grape, and Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, Petite Syrah, Merlot and many other wine grape varieties.
Along with all of his many agriculture accomplishments, Gillet was a two term City Councilman of Nevada City, was responsible for creating Nevada City’s first water system, moved the City Hall to it’s present location, was a prime mover in the Workingman’s Party, was a founder of what is now the State of California Department of Food and Agriculture, and was a prolific author whose work appeared in numerous agricultural publications.