Visiting Jim Lawson, the Paul Bunyan of Bench Grafting

I have an apple bucket [bushel box?] list consisting of people and varieties to find before they disappear. Towards the top of my list of people to find has been Mr. Jim Lawson, an 89 year-old nurseryman from Ball Ground, Georgia. He has been credited for finding a slew of old southern apple varieties and his work has been mentioned in books, propagated by nurserymen/women across the South and planted in many, many yards. He has worked as a professional nurseryman and fruit explorer for much of his life and I just had to meet him.

Last month, I tried to go and visit a *very* old man in Illinois to talk about the nut trees on his property and an hour before we were about to leave, I received a text from his daughter telling me that he had taken a turn for the worst and was going to die. Our trip was cancelled and we never had the chance to talk with him, collect his stories, and tell him how much we appreciated him. Still feeling the sting of that last experience, I decided to embark on an impulsive trip to North Georgia to find Jim Lawson because time is running out. I didn’t have his address and my one attempt at calling him produced no answer, so I reached out to my old college roommate (Cam), who lives a town over, and we tracked him down through the local connection. If I had tried, there’s a good chance we could have tracked him down on a basis of apple tree regularity. The closer we got to his place, the more apple trees we saw in the landscape. Pulling up to the front of his nursery building, there was someone looking at us through the window. It was Jim Lawson. We had found him!

Every now and then, I spontaneously show up at someone’s house and the person I’ve set out to talk with is rather skeptical. I’ve never been turned away, but sometimes I’ve had to really work to stay. This did not happen in the slightest with Jim. He was delighted and excited to meet us.

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About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character. -David Brooks, The Moral Bucket List

I feel blessed beyond words (so much so that I had to take David Brook’s words) to run across people like this in my life. They are continual examples and guiding lights for the type of person I want to be. After only spending a few minutes with Jim Lawson, I knew I had added another mentor to my registry of “people I want to be like.” The thought also hit me that if he didn’t live in Georgia, there would be a real chance that sparks would fly with another life mentor of mine, Anna, who lives on an island in Maine. They would be so cute, just the thought makes my heart want to burst!

Throughout the day, people circulated through his nursery building and with each new addition, we would be introduced as his “apple friends.” Most would come in, sit, and listen to Jim tell us stories. Some would offer up a few words but many just sat, content, until the time came when they had to go. Jim was sad when these people got up to leave and made sure to send them along with a genuine expression of how much their visit meant to him and how he hoped to see them again soon.

Jim Lawson, in the overalls, holding Adele's Choice Hard Cider from Mercier's Orchard in GA

Jim Lawson, in the overalls, holding Adele’s Choice Hard Cider from Mercier’s Orchard in GA

We talked about many topics and I’ve decided to write out the highlights rather than type up the stories word for word (they are recorded).

1.) In his hay day, Jim could bench graft (whip and tongue) 1000 trees in a day. For those of you who aren’t versed in the grafting world, this is nothing short of a legendary feat. These days, he only grafts a few trees every now and then because his hands don’t allow him to do much more. I didn’t press him for a number because I fear it’s probably in the hundreds at a time (what I do).

2.) At 89 year old, he wants to learn how to graft walnuts. So much so, that he’s going to join the Northern Nut Growers Association this year to be a part of their network and hopefully learn more.

3.) He has the “Big O” crabapple, which he will let me come and take cuttings from this summer. He knows everyone in the southern apple world and whenever someone would find or breed an interesting variety, they would give him a call. This is how he got the “Big O.” It’s a great keeper (stores for quite a long time).

4.) In addition to the “Big O,” he thought I’d really like to try the Craven crabapple. The Craven was being grown by a man somewhere in the South (again, the exact story with details is voice recorded) and Jim Lawson received some scions of this tree in the mail. He then started to propagate this tree and spread it far and wide though his nursery. Years later, he received a disgruntled letter from the old man who said that he had plans to patent the craven variety and was upset that Lawson had propagated the tree without his permission. Lawson sent him two Craven trees along with an apology and he never heard anything from the man again. Rumor has it, the man’s original tree had died and if it wasn’t for Lawson propagating the tree, it would not currently exist.

Jim Lawson then got up and walked to a back room in his shop. When he emerged, he was holding two shrunken apples: craven. He gave them to me with exclamations of how well they keep and told me to plant out the seed. My old college roommate must have been rather confused to see me get so excited about receiving two in-edible apples. I can’t wait to plant out those seeds!

craven apple

5.) In order to find old varieties, he’d just ask people. If he was driving somewhere, he’d pull over when he saw an old apple tree and knock on the door. It didn’t matter if they had names or not, if the apple was something he had never seen and looked good, he’d take a cutting and name it after the household name or address. Many of these varieties today still don’t have a true name. Sometimes, people would contact him looking for a specific apple variety and he would help to track them down given his local connections. To this day, two varieties elude him (I’ll update later on the names of these). He’s optimistic that they’re still around.

6.) One time, a man bought two of every single tree he had and planted them on a hillside in North GA. These trees have grown seedlings and are now a thriving habitat for deer. He hears from many hunters about how wonderful and appreciative they are for that planting of apple trees.

7.) He prefers to pour apple brandy over his pound cake.

When we were leaving, we gave him a bottle of hard cider from Mercier Orchards. The type of cider was called “Adele’s Choice” and when he received it, he exclaimed “I knew Adele! She would be so happy to know that they put her on a bottle of hard cider. Oh, this just makes me so happy.”

There’s really something to staying put. However does someone with insatiable wanderlust do such a thing?! I guess the answer will one day be (when/if I settle down to a single area): those people with wanderlust will just have to come and find me!

WANTED: The “Big O” Crabapple

Malus coronaria

This apple (the variety is called “Big O”) was last seen in 2006 at the USDA/NRCS Jimmy Carter Plant Materials Center in Americus, Georgia. They distributed these trees to people who inquired and have since stopped distributing. The breeding program is over and the trees no longer exist in Americus (so I’ve been told).

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DESCRIPTION: ‘Big O’ is a small tree that grows 20-30 feet tall from a slender trunk. The blossom petals are pink/white fading to whitish and the normal blooming period in Americus is mid-late March. The mature fruit is 1 ½ inches in diameter, greenish yellow and ripens in November.

Why am I looking for this tree? It’s extremely disease resistant, blooms rather late for a deep southeastern apple, and the crop matures late. It grows true-ish from seed, and the fruit itself is a larger sized crabapple.

Get in contact with me if you find this apple or knows someone who might have this apple! Just leave a message on here or find me on Facebook.