By Yehudis Litvak.
Tu Bishvat, listed in the Mishna as the New Year for trees, has a special significance for Los Angelinos who grow fruit trees in their backyards. Even though fruit grown outside of Eretz Yisrael is not tithed, the date of Tu Bishvat, as well as the date of Rosh Hashana, is used to determine when the fruits of a newly planted tree are no longer considered orlah and may be eaten.
In fact, growing fruit trees in Los Angeles provides special mitzvah opportunities and allows a glimpse into the agricultural cycle described in the Torah. We are lucky that our local climate is similar to that of Eretz Yisrael. Almost all of the seven species of Eretz Yisrael are able to grow here, with the exception of dates that need a hot desert climate. Besides pomegranates, figs, grapes, and olives, Los Angeles tree enthusiasts also grow citrus trees, apricots, peaches, loquats, persimmons, mangos, and others. “Trees are life,” says Deena, whose backyard boasts a variety of fruit trees. “They are a place to get shade, food, oxygen. They make you stop, put down roots.”
Most locally grown fruit trees lose their leaves in the fall and appear lifeless this time of the year. “The trees are dormant,” explains Ilana Korchek, a gardener and landscape designer in Los Angeles. “Around Tu Bishvat, the soil begins to thaw, and the sap starts to flow up. As the weather gets warmer, the tree expands, and the water is able to flow. The trees begin to form buds.” With spring, fruit trees grow new leaves and begin to blossom. The blossoms turn into fruits which ripen throughout the summer.
Some trees, such as citrus trees, stay green and give fruit all year around. They grow especially well in the southern California climate, and some local residents grow their own esrogim and use them on Sukkos. Growing an esrog tree, however, has its halachic complications. “Almost all fruit trees sold in local nurseries are grafted,” says Ms. Korchek. “[For the mitzvah] an esrog tree has to be grown from seeds.” The Hauer family in Los Angeles did just that. “We took some seeds from an esrog and put them into pots, and then we kept transferring them to bigger pots as they grew bigger, until they were ready to be put in the ground,” explained Mrs. Hauer. One of the trees is currently producing large esrogim. Before Sukkos, the Hauers need to protect the esrogim from the prickles that grow on the tree branches because a damaged esrog cannot be used for the mitzvah.
A lack of planting space does little to stop local tree enthusiasts. Chava Gerber, whose tiny backyard is paved, grew her esrog tree in a pot. It is now four years old, and this past Sukkos she used her homegrown esrog for the first time. “It was fun to watch it grow,” she enthused, “I picked it right before I needed it.” Ms. Gerber also grows figs and lemons in pots.
Children especially enjoy growing fruit trees. At Emek Hebrew Academy, the students have been growing an orchard, adding new fruit trees every Tu Bishvat. The orchard is part of Emek’s project-based learning program. “We asked the children what they were interested in, and a lot of children wanted to start a garden,” explained Rae Shagalov, Library Talent Center Director. So far, they’ve planted fig, apple, olive, and pomegranate trees. Each of the children also receives their own square foot of land where they can plant a vegetable of their choice. “Children go out at recess to watch the plants grow,” added Mrs. Shagalov. “It’s amazing how much science they learn informally.”
Some fruit trees are very easy to grow. The pomegranate tree in Ms. Gerber’s front yard “thrives on neglect.” Figs are also very low maintenance. “You can’t kill a fig tree,” noted Ms. Korchek. In fact, the Citron family, which grows two kinds of figs in addition to other fruit trees, once had a house guest who watered their fig trees in an attempt to be helpful. “It wasn’t good; that summer, the figs tasted very watery,” lamented Mrs. Citron.
Nevertheless, growing fruit trees requires a commitment. Halacha forbids destroying a fruit tree. Once planted, the tree is there to stay for generations to come. Besides their nutritional value, fruits can also provide food for thought. “By blessing the fruits during the Tu Bishvat Seder, and sharing Torah insights about them, we can elevate our relationship to food, and infuse our eating with Torah,” expounded Rebbetzin Chana Bracha Siegelbaum in her book The Seven Fruits of the Land of Israel.