When it comes to caring for fruit and nut trees, Richard O’Barr’s roots run deep:
• His grandfather Fred Howard had one of the first roadside fruit stands in Chilton County.
• O’Barr earned his bachelor’s degree in plant science at Auburn University, then earned master’s and doctorate degrees in the same subject at the University of Georgia.
• He spent 25 years working in pecan research at LSU, following 4 years as an Air Force pilot and 10 years as a technical writer in Huntsville. He has varieties of pecans named for him. One planted on his property is simply known as "R.O. 2."
• He took a 6-1/2 acre property in the Brashier’s Chapel community near Scant City and turned it into a home orchard like you’ve never seen. He has pecans, Asian persimmons, muscadines, blackberries, blueberries, apples, figs and many other species of fruit and nut bearing trees and shrubs on the property that was once just the corner of a pasture. “We have some sort of fruit or nut coming in basically every week from May through frost,” O’Barr said.
• Shortly after meeting Genell, the woman who would become his wife, she visited the property to pick mayhaws. O’Barr said he was going to make jelly out of them. She suggested they make wine instead. They did and their wine won a gold medal at the Alabama Wine Makers Assn. competition. It was the first of many medals the couple would win with their wine.
Spend any time at all with O’Barr and it’s readily apparent he simply loves plants and working with them. Many of his trees are ones he either grafted or rooted from cuttings himself.
“I find something different every time I go out and walk through it,” O’Barr said of his property.
He’s always thinking ahead of what he can root or graft next and how it will fit in with his plans of producing an attractive, productive orchard.
The Asian persimmons are coming in now. They’re big and orange and O’Barr has several varieties throughout the property.
“They’re just beautiful,” O’Barr said. There are a few thousand fruits around the property right now, he estimates. Some trees are so heavily laden that limbs have broken.
O’Barr said his military flying career was an unlikely one.
“I was the guy who got carsick riding down the road in a car,” the 87-year-old said.
The Korean War was going strong. Relatives suggested he talk to the Navy recruiters rather than wait to be drafted. The idea of being on a ship rather than slogging through a rice paddy with a rifle appealed to him.
“They told me, ‘You can learn to fly,’” he said.
It was a 4-year commitment but he did it.
“They told me if I didn’t make it in the pilot program, I could be in the regular Navy and it would only be 2 years,” O’Barr said.
He made it through the pilot training, although he saw classmates crash and burn, literally.
“There was some danger to it,” he said. “But we were young and nothing much scared us.”
The Korean War was over by the time he finished his training. He was assigned to sub hunter duty and made many carrier landings at night.
He said night patrol flights are exactly as advertised: “Hours and hours of boredom followed by a few moments of sheer terror.”
He had his own close call on one carrier landing. A throttle cable broke and he had to come in “hot.” But everything worked out as it was supposed to and he landed safely.
He flew jets towards the end of his Naval career.
He has friends throughout the plant world and many have given him plants or even just twigs that he rooted to grow trees. He admits there’s a certain satisfaction to the work of rooting and grafting.
“You don’t create it,” he said. “Only the good Lord can do that. But what you did brought it into being.”
A large propagation bed beside his home is where he does the work.
It’s covered and has a mister that comes on for 7 seconds every 5 minutes.
O’Barr isn’t sure exactly how many trees he has planted on the property. But most have a story and he can tell you most of the varieties and either how he came by them or why he has them.
He does know there are 88 pecans and 55 of them are of the age to bear a crop. Getting a crop of pecans is a battle. There’s scab disease plus squirrels and birds.
“A university did a study and they found a blue jay could hold 3 pecans in its mouth,” O’Barr said, “one in its throat, one in its mouth and one in its beak.”
He said studies showed a single crow could eat 25 pounds of pecans in a year and a blue jay 15 pounds.
Squirrels and raccoons can do their damage to both fruits and nuts as well. O’Barr once trapped them a bit, but doesn’t bother nowadays.
If the pecans are difficult, the Asian persimmons are easy. They’re disease resistant and practically no spraying is involved.
“The birds seem to find the ripe ones before I do,” he said.
Where the property falls off to a wet weather creek, there’s a large stand of bamboo. O’Barr is proud of it. A former associate sent him a single stalk of bamboo from his old plant operation at LSU. The bamboo stand was the result of planting that single stalk.
It is not the only heirloom plant on the property. There was a lovely elm tree in the yard of the Auburn University president when he was a student. Some seeds fell across the wall surrounding the president’s mansion. O’Barr propagated the seed and planted an elm from the Auburn elm in his mother’s yard.
Later, he got seed from his mother’s tree and planted his own elm that graces his yard today. It’s not a Toomer’s oak, but it is an Auburn elm.
Adjacent to the Auburn elm is a Leyland cypress propagated from a Calloway Gardens tree. So Auburn and Georgia are both represented.
Other specimens he’s proud of include a yellow tulip tree, gumie berry, quince trees (the fruit makes wonderful jelly) and much more.
“This is a Hachiya persimmon,” O’Barr said, pointing to a tree with exceptionally large fruit. “It’s the Cadillac of oriental persimmons.”
If you’d like some Asian persimmons, O’Barr’s neighbor Bertam Mau sells them. His number is 256-656-6981.
While fruits and nuts are O’Barr’s primary interest, a good ornamental is not lost on him. A half dozen large hollies line his driveway, propagated from a holly he had by his mailbox in Louisiana.
Camillias and other flowering trees and shrubs are near the house.
All that delicious produce the O’Barrs grow is never wasted. In addition to wine, the O’Barrs make jellies and Genell’s persimmon bread is second to none.