Floyd Zaiger is the Sweetness Scientist Behind Zaiger Genetics

Editor’s Note: I first wrote about Zaiger Genetics for a story in our October 2000 issue headlined “Chums and Plerries?” Floyd Zaiger told me he was crossing the two fruits, and he later patented the ‘Pluerry’, so my suggestions didn’t make the cut. But the Pluerry never really caught on, and Zaiger now licenses a cross to a Fresno, CA, grower John Warmerdam, who calls them ‘Very Cherry Plums,’ and packs them at a sweet 20 Brix. Over the past 17 years, I have gone on Zaiger’s renowned Wednesday fruit-tasting tours many times, and have picked up some wisdom every single time.

One Morning this past February, Floyd Zaiger was busy at a desk taking pollen from a peach blossom. It was an appropriate time and place. February is when the first deciduous crop trees bloom in Modesto, CA, where Zaiger Genetics is located.

At the age of 91, Zaiger still likes to keep his hand in the day-to-day of the breeding business, even though his cardiologist isn’t crazy about it. Zaiger had open heart surgery two years ago, and has the scars to prove it. He might not be as active as he was just a half-dozen years or so ago — when he not only still participated in the weekly tasting tours his family hosts, he would boost himself up a tree to snag a fully sunbathed piece of fruit — but he’s far from retired. As Zaiger often says, he’ll retire when finds something he likes better than fruit breeding.

Collecting pollen is the first step in the long fruit-breeding process, which Zaiger, and now his kids, have refined through the years. The pollen he was collecting will be strained into a glass test tube, which is carefully labeled — this happens to be Variety #243BC379 — so it can be crossed with another variety for earlier, tastier, or larger fruit.

But first they have to grow the trees out and then evaluate the fruit for several years. If a variety makes that cut, the Zaigers will send it to growers who will evaluate how it fares in various climates, soils, etc.

“It will be 19 years before we get our money back,” Zaiger says, a grin starting to spread. “There’s a reason there aren’t too many other people in it — it’s not that lucrative.”

But Zaiger is being far too modest, as Zaiger Genetics has grown and prospered through the years. He has also pioneered several techniques. One, which seems obvious now, is to grow stock in containers so he can move trees into greenhouses and cold storage. This enables pollen application even during wet winters/springs like this past one so large numbers of crosses can continue to be made.

There are 2,000 trees in containers each year at the Zaiger facility. It’s critical that a lot of crosses be made, because of the 700 selections that are trialed each year only seven will end up being commercialized. Still, the technique seems to be working. There have been 446 patents issued in the U.S. for Zaiger’s Genetics Inc. varieties.

Flowers To Fruit
It’s an astounding number of patents, especially when you consider Floyd Zaiger didn’t set out to be a plant breeder at all. He received a degree in plant pathology and agricultural education in 1952 from the University of California, Davis, and then taught high school. He and wife Betty, who passed away a few years ago and whom Floyd mentions frequently, bought an azalea nursery in 1954 to make additional money for their growing family.

His first project was breeding heat-tolerant rhododendrons. Having caught the plant-breeding “disease,” as he calls it, esteemed fruit breeder Fred Anderson didn’t have much trouble convincing Floyd to work for him for two seasons. And so 60 years ago the baton was passed. Anderson is widely regarded as the father of the modern nectarine. His mentor was the famed Luther Burbank, who developed not only the ‘Burbank’ potato, but the ‘Santa Rosa’ plum.

Initially, Floyd concentrated on advancing maturity and lowering the chilling requirements of peaches and nectarines for commercial growers. In the early 1960’s, he patented and released his first varieties to the U.S. and France: ‘Royal Gold’ peach and ‘Crimson Gold’ nectarine, which were actually more popular in Europe.

“They were starved for quality fruit and couldn’t get it,” says his daughter, Leith Gardner, who, with her brothers Grant and Gary, have “caught the disease.”

Worldwide Renown
In 1968, during a visit to Europe, Floyd noticed that white-fleshed peach and nectarine varieties were priced higher than standard yellow-fleshed varieties. On his return to Modesto, he started to develop white-fleshed varieties for the European market. Over the next two decades, the percentage of white-fleshed varieties increased, until the number of white peach and nectarine trees sold in France actually exceeded the quantity sold of yellow-fleshed varieties.

Floyd Zaiger believes the modest Modesto company’s international appeal would probably be a big surprise to most U.S. growers.
“We work on a worldwide basis,” he says. “We have agents in most all of the fruit-growing areas of the world, and we’ve been working with same agent in France, Jean-Pierre Darnaud, since 1962.”

In 1997, Zaiger received the French Legion of Honor — Officer of Merit. Other countries’ growers have also been a delight to work with through the years, he says. But international trade can have its pitfalls, as growers in some countries have been known to plant Zaiger-patented trees without paying fees or even acknowledging the source of the trees.

“Leith was at a cherry meeting in Washington one time where a person from Israel was talking about cherries that turned out to be our product,” he says. “This goes on all the time — many people want to make money without working.”

In the early 1990’s, California growers became interested in growing white-fleshed fruit for Asian markets. Dave Wilson Nursery — whom Zaiger had partnered with decades before with a simple handshake — was able to take advantage of the many years the Zaigers had already invested in the development of varieties for Europe. For this new market, the emphasis in the Zaiger breeding strategy was broadened to include varieties with high sugar-to-acid ratio, preferred by the Asian market at that time. Zaiger varieties now comprise an overwhelming majority of white-fleshed peach and nectarine plantings in California.

The Zaigers were also pioneers in the breeding of low-acid yellow-fleshed peaches and nectarines. In fruit tasting seminars conducted by Dave Wilson Nursery, their representatives noticed young people prefer fruit that is firm rather than soft-ripe. With their higher sugar-to-acid balance when firm-ripe, the new low acid peach and nectarine varieties developed by the Zaigers were well-positioned for the marketplace.

Pluots, Apriums, Etc.
But perhaps the fruit Zaiger is best known for is the interspecific plum, crossed with apricot, called the Pluot. He is proudest of Pluots because they are shipped all over the world.

For example, when they were first developing Pluots, they came across one that was a really odd-shaped piece of fruit. One of the Dave Wilson sales people said it looked like a dinosaur egg. Kingsburg Orchards of Kingsburg, CA, trademarked that name.

In the mid-1990s, they sent some to Brazil, Leith recalls. Soon the Zaigers started getting calls from growers in Argentina wanting ‘Dinosaur Eggs.’

“They sold that first box in Brazil for $100,” she says, “when a box of peaches went for about $15 at most.”

The Pluot isn’t the only plum/apricot cross the Zaigers have trademarked. The other would be the Aprium, so named because even though the same two fruits are involved, Apriums look much more like apricots. Pluots have a lot of plum in them and come in many colors. But Apriums, even though they are 5/8 plums, still look mainly like apricots, which shows how tricky fruit breeding can be.

“When you see a nice Aprium and it looks like every other apricot, you have problems,” Leith says, adding that they have been able to differentiate the fruit in recent years. “They’re now being marketed as colored apricots. Colored ‘cots come in yellow, orange, red, and blue.”

Incidentally, perhaps the most prominent Zaiger variety planted by growers in the past decade isn’t a fruit at all. It is the ‘Independence’ almond, so named because it is self-fertile and thus independent of honeybees — a huge boon for growers.

Wednesdays With Floyd
Ask growers interested in new stone fruit varieties about where they get a lot of their information, and they will often cite Zaiger Genetics, specifically the Wednesday fruit-tasting tours. The tours attract not just growers, but wholesale buyers, representatives from their industry partner Dave Wilson Nursery, and the sales agents who are licensed by Zaiger to sell their varieties around the world.

Walt Jones, whose family owns Sun Valley Packing in Reedley, CA told me he has known Zaiger for 40 years. Besides being a gentleman, Floyd, as well as sons Gary and Grant and daughter Leith Gardner, really know their fruit.

“Five years ago I picked five (peach and nectarine) varieties and had them make me trees, and all five were winners,” Jones says. “He and his kids, now in their 50s and 60s, are the premier fruit tree breeders in the world — no doubt.”

You’ll always find great fellowship on the tours — where golf carts and farm wagons are employed to shuttle a few dozen visitors around Zaiger’s 125 acres — as well as a wide variety of fruit.

Depending on the time of year — the tours are held from early May through September — there will be 30 to 50 varieties of everything from cherries and nectarines to apricots and peaches, with lots of crosses in between.

One year I had something called a Nectaplum, which remains to this day the best single piece of fruit I have ever tasted. Floyd’s favorite fruit is the Aprium.

“They don’t have the size I’d like,” he says, “but they do have tremendous eating quality.”

At each stop, some of the Zaiger grandkids bring samples of fruit to Leith, who keeps a clipboard with a list of the numbered varieties — and a map of where to find the trees — as well as a refractometer to measure sugar content. “Average Brix is 19,” she called out about a cherry on a recent day, “and it’s self-fertile.”

The Zaigers leave a few named varieties out in the blocks so growers can have points of reference. For example, that same day when cherries were prominently featured, Leith called out: “This is ‘Royal Hazel’ for your timing.”

‘Royal Hazel,’ a highly flavored Zaiger-patented variety, requires just 500 chill hours. The Zaiger/Dave Wilson ‘Royal’ series of cherry varieties have been a huge hit among California cherry growers, especially those in southern areas that don’t get as many chilling hours.

Another Reedley grower, Eric Wuhl of Family Tree Farms, has attended every tour for the past decade. Wuhl tells me he’s frankly humbled to be in the presence of breeders who are obviously highly skilled, yet share their life’s work so freely.

Fruit breeding by its nature is a solitary endeavor, yet by involving his family so enthusiastically through the years, Floyd Zaiger is helping to ensure a lasting impact.

“I think this operation, which has made the kinds of crosses that have developed fruits that are beyond compare, will live on,” he says. “A lot of operations are one-man shows, but I think Zaiger’s will live on.”

Advice For GenNext
One of the world’s best-known stone fruit breeders, Floyd Zaiger, offers some tips to young fruit growers and breeders.
Q: What’s the biggest mistake you see young growers make in variety selection?
A: “Probably not checking with the buyers first. My flavor, my opinion, it could be the best piece of fruit I’ve ever eaten, but that’s only my opinion. We don’ tell anybody what to plant. We tell them ‘Here are the total experiences we have had with these varieties,’ but we let them make the decisions. Also, the varieties can behave differently (in other areas) than in Modesto. We’ve always told them we have 10 varieties and two are going to bomb. We don’t know which two — and you don’t know which two — that’s just the way it works.”

Q: Any advice for a fruit breeder just starting out?
A: “Besides studying, try and get experience. Be young, include your family, and accept mistakes.”

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