Father Serra Goes to California

Image courtesy freerepublic.comBy Christopher Zoukis

Almonds were introduced to America by Miquel Josep Serra iFerrer, who was born in Majorca, Spain.  When he finally arrived in California, he was Fray Junipero Serra, a priest in the Order of St. Francis.  He came to California to administer the missions on the Baja California Peninsula.  This system of missions had been founded by the Jesuits, who, because of their political intrigues, had just been forcibly kicked out of “New Spain” by King Carlos III. 

Father Serra brought along a bag of almond plantings, which he planted and attempted to grow.  His attempts failed, because the damp coastal fogs and high humidity of the area were not favorable to almond cultivation. 

Meanwhile, far across America, ranchers in New England and the Middle Atlantic States decided to try and grow almonds commercially.  At the same time, down in Texas, New Mexico and Colorado other ranchers were making the same attempt.  These ranchers thought that almonds should grow wherever peaches did.  It seemed only natural, since they were genetically similar.  It didn’t work.  Almonds bloom early and late frosts destroyed the harvests.  And if the frost didn’t get the almonds, because of the relative high humidity, disease did.  The venture was discarded as a waste of time.

What was so remarkable about Father Serra’s attempts was the fact that he even tried.  For he had a dour personality and took no pleasure in living.  He disliked conversing with his fellow priests, never laughed, and was unceasingly serious.  He ate very little, did not drink wine, and disdained red meat, preferring only dabs of fish with a few pieces of fruit.  Considering it his duty to suffer for Jesus, he practiced self-flagellation, lashing himself with ropes and wire.  At other times, so that he might punish his corrupt flesh, Father Serra struck himself on the chest with jagged stones or scorched himself with a burning torch.  For all this, 204 years after his death, Father Serra was beatified – made a saint – by Pope John Paul II in 1988.

Why on earth he carried almond plantings with him, and tried to nurture them, is unknown.  Perhaps he did so because he perceived it as his duty – one of the duties of the man of God to society.  Whatever the reason, within 100 years his efforts paid off.  In 1850, a group of men planted almond trees near Sacramento, Monterey, and Los Angeles.  The trees flourished.  They had found the Mediterranean conditions from which they had come. 

An industry was born in the Central Valley of California.