Combining food folklore with in situ plant conservation, the Southwest Regis-Tree seeks to document, protect and promote the threatened heirloom perennial species and varieties adapted to the Southwest.
Just as remaining varietal diversity of annual crops faces myriad challenges to its continued existence, so too does diversity of perennial fruit and nut varieties. Consolidation in the nursery trade has greatly reduced the diversity of tree crops available to the public, while climate change, catastrophic weather events, and neglect continue to whittle down the number of ancient heirloom trees in our landscapes.
Recognizing these risks to the heirloom fruit heritage of the Southwest, Native Seeds/SEARCH initiated the Arizona Regis-Tree project in 1991 to document and safeguard remaining fruit and nut diversity associated with perennial plants in the Grand Canyon State. In 2005, under the guidance of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University, the Regis-Tree was expanded to the entire Southwest, including both public and private lands in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Texas. The Southwest Regis-Tree is now working to catalogue remaining heirloom trees of the region, to promote their conservation and use, and to act as a model for the development of similar projects across North America.
It would be difficult to conserve and promote local heirloom fruit trees if their existence remained unknown. The core of the Southwest Regis-Tree project is therefore a database of trees, shrubs, vines, orchards, mixed perennial gardens, and wild collecting areas of historical significance. The Regis-Tree tracks a wealth of information, from the history of each site to the varietal identities of the plants themselves and their conservation status. To date, over 100 historic orchards and remnant stands have been entered in the Regis-Tree from Arizona alone, representing at least 22 species and 60 distinct fruit and nut varieties associated with Native American, Chinese, European, Hispanic, and Mexican cultural legacies. You can help the Regis-Tree grow by nominating heirloom trees for inclusion in the database.
The mission and activities of the Southwest Regis-Tree are complemented by those of the Renewing America's Food Traditions (RAFT) project. The RAFT project has taken a multi-pronged approach to the conservation of the region's heirloom fruit trees, pairing training workshops on tree identification, propagation, and documentation with historic orchard restoration and the promotion of heirloom fruits through marketing and culinary venues. With assistance from Native Seeds/SEARCH and other organizations, RAFT has offered one national workshop and three regional workshops in the Southwest, and four regional workshops in New England and the Midwest. Orchard restoration efforts have been undertaken at several sites across the Southwest. "We're actively working with Hopi orchard-keepers to take cuttings from trees that survived the drought to return grafted saplings to their communities," explained Gary Paul Nabhan, co-founder of NS/S, the Southwest Regis-Tree, and RAFT, in 2006. "We're also helping to restore historic orchards in state and national parks, from Capitol Reef in Utah's canyonlands, to Slide Rock near Sedona, all the way down to Organ Pipe Cactus on the Mexican border."
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum's Kino Heritage Fruit Trees Project is another complementary project whose mission is to identify fruit varieties from the Spanish Mission Era in the Sonoran Desert region, restore them to appropriate historic orchard sites, and make them available to the public.