In Defense of Bradford Pear

I wrote this article for TheFruitExplorers.com and decided to cross post it here.

Every year, around this time, social media begins to rumble in uproar over Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana). With headlines like “The Curse of the Bradford Pear,” “Bradford pear tree: How the trees can hurt people, then environment,” and finally “I Just Hate Bradford Pear,” it’s no wonder people have it out for them. The trees have NO GOOD PRESS and, unfortunately, it’s much easier for hoards of people to fall in line with anti-invasive rhetoric than to understand who or what they are trying to demonize. In light of this, the time has come to take a stand for this poorly misunderstood tree.

Bradford pear belongs to the species Pyrus calleryana, which is why it is sometimes called “Callery.” This species of pear is native to China, where the range goes from sea-level to 5000 feet in elevation, spanning a thousand miles inland as the crow flies. Cousins of callery pear are also in Northern Korea and Japan, showing an immense climate and site adaptability for the species.

Pyrus calleryana in Japan
Pyrus calleryana in Japan

How did it get to the US?:

In the early 20th century, the Pacific Northwest contained many orchards of Pyrus communis, or French pears. These pears were being ravaged by fireblight (Erwinia amylovora), a native bacterial disease, and professor Frank Reimer was pulling his hair out over the potential loss of the West Coast commercial pear industry if a control for fireblight wasn’t found soon. Researchers have long known that Asia’s gene pool for fruit and nuts is much older than European or American genetics, and likely hold resistances or much improved tolerances to pest and disease due to the long and slow co-evolution over time. Reimer knew, from his research, that Pyrus calleryana and Pyrus ussuriensis were inherently resistant, so he put out an SOS to obtain pear seed from Asian regions in order to hopefully find resistance.

Professor Frank Reimer, left
Professor Frank Reimer, left

Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum in Massachusetts answered his call in 1908, sending plant explorer EH Wilson (aka “Chinese” Wilson) to China to see what he could find. Once there, he collected P. calleryana seeds from 4,000-5,000 feet in elevation and sent them to be grown out in Boston. Many of these proved to be hardy for Massachusetts and many people, including professor Frank Reimer, got excited. Given the potential for Pyrus callerana to save the commercial pear industry in the PNW, the USDA decided to add callery pear to their fruit’s explorer’s collection list.

At the time, the USDA had been going through a period of glitz and glam concerning their plant exploration program. The golden child at the center of this hubub was the darling plant explorer David Fairchild, the person responsible for bringing over German hops, the avocado, and kale (among many, many other things). With his notoriety and prestige, he married into the fabulously wealthy family of Alexander Graham Bell, and was feeling the need to step down from his travels abroad in order to start a family. Instead of Fairchild himself going on the pear mission, he delegated the job to one of the toughest mofos alive: Frank Meyer. Dutch born, Meyer was known for his ability to walk 30+ miles a day, everyday, forever.

Frank Meyer in Turkestan
Frank Meyer in Turkestan

This would be no small job, either. According to Arnold Arboretum, 25 pounds of seed would require picking seeds out of 5000 pounds of fruit. That’s the equivalent of 125 bushels of tiny (8.5mm on average) callery pear fruits, which would be maddening to collect by hand. This wasn’t a problem for Meyer, though, as he probably preferred tiny pear seeds to interacting with people. With his marching orders, he set out on this pear mission, writing the following to his boss, David Fairchild:

A letter to David Fairchild from Frank Meyer April 16, 1917
A letter to David Fairchild from Frank Meyer April 16, 1917

Once the first batches of seeds were back in the States, they went under commercial pear rootstock monitoring for fireblight resistance. These pear seeds produced vigorous, uniform trees that, when inoculated with fireblight, proved to be the most resistant of any pear tree they had evaluated, by a landslide (double the resistance of Pyrus ussurriensis and far more vigorous). The chart below reveals the results of this trial:

Fireblight Results Callery Pear Innoculation.png

In later studies, Reimer reported that 11% of P. calleryana trunk inoculations showed a severe fireblight infection. Which, by the way, is pretty amazing. When I innoculated my apple seedlings with fireblight ooze, 95% of them showed severe infection or died.

In addition to having stellar fireblight resistance, Callery pears were tested on a variety of sites and were found to thrive in nearly all soil and moisture scenarios, from coarse sand underlain by granite to heavy clay. They also found Callery pears to have a lower chilling requirement than P. communis (French pear rootstock) (source), allowing for it to be grown in more erratic seasonal conditions (which might not have been a big deal then but MAN is that a big deal now). This pear species was seen as the most bomb-proof, resilient rootstock around on which to grow our favorite eating pears, and even produced yields 32% above the same cultivars grafted to P. communis (Source: Westwood, Pear Rootstocks for the Northwest. NAFEX POMONA Vol 3, Number 2, 1970). With the excitement and growing popularity of using callery pear as rootstock, the US continued with seed gathering trips to China for decades.

From Amazing to Pariah, what happened?

First of all, most of what you read about the introduction of Bradford pear (P. calleryana) to America is incorrect, as I’ve just given you the real history above. Outlets like The Grumpy Gardner, a now-retired columnist for all things horticulture at Southern Living Magazine, have done a lot of damage spewing emotion-based information to people who don’t know any better.  With little challenge to any of the points ever made, he and others managed to create a culture of emotional reaction surrounding P. calleryana, rather than a much needed practical one. For the record, the chances of you being allergic to Bradford Pears are slim to none because they aren’t wind pollinated. Bullied, bruised, blamed and constantly soaked in toxic agri-chemicals to try and kill it, the Callery pear is one of the most shamed species in the US. If you don’t believe me, look no further than the hundreds of online articles that alone focus on how the blooms smells like male ejaculate (that’s spermadine and putresine you’re smelling and it’s in a lot more plants than you think, including the beloved American chestnut).

Why didn’t Callery become the main rootstock of all pear production in the US? According to Reimer, on average, the tree isn’t very hardy (doesn’t like to grow colder than 7a, or below -10 fahrenheit), it doesn’t propagate all that well from stooling beds (primary means of producing rootstocks in the nursery industry), and has poor fruit qualilty. Why fruit quality matters for a rootstock is beyond me, but it was listed as a reason. In regions 7a and hotter, though, Callery pear is the best rootstock onto which one could graft European and Asian pear cultivars, but the research conducted on these pears was West coast centric and never really made it over to the East, even after Callery became a dreaded invasive.

Root Stock to Ornamental to Monster:

The Glenn Dale Maryland USDA research site had planted many P. calleryana seeds from Frank Meyer’s collection and by 1950, there were still a few P. calleryana trees remaining at the location. In 1952, researchers took notice of one particular thornless (many wild apples and pears have thorns) tree with an amazing white bloom (Callery produces fruit on lateral branches, on the previous year’s wood and on spurs of older wood. According to Reimer, It probably produces more blossoms than any other species of Pyrus). Thinking this could be of ornamental quality, cuttings were taken from this tree, grafted onto a seedling Callery pear rootstock, and planted in a subdivision nearby for testing. These trees were pruned/maintained, and after 8 years of oohs and ahhhs, they named the cultivar ‘Bradford,’ in honor of the horticulturalist who recognized its potential as an ornamental tree.  By 1962, the Bradford Pear was available commercially and it became one of the most widely planted suburban trees in the US.

Around this time, other research stations and arboretums were noticing the ornamental value of the seeds planted from Meyer’s explorations. The National Arboretum produced, from a seedling selection, a cultivar called “White House,” and a seedling now known as “Autumn Blaze” was selected from the Horticultural Farm in Corvalis, Oregon.

The late 1960’s welcomed a gold-rush era of Callery pears, with many nurseries planting out seedlings from the original collections of Frank Meyer in order to find the next Bradford. This, friends, is where we start to transition from Amazing Rootstock to Amazing Ornamental Street Tree to “The Curse of the Bradford Pear.”

Pyrus calleryana is amazing for all of the reasons I listed above (insect and disease resistance, able to grow in a variety of soils and climates), but did you know it is also largely resistant to pest like deer, Japanese beetles, and wood boring beetles? The tree is precocious (often 3 years to fruit), the first to leaf out in the spring and the last to drop its leaves in the fall/winter. All of these qualities are noteworthy, yet have gone largely unnoticed due to one thing: The original ‘Bradford’ tree was self sterile.

When a tree is self-sterile, it cannot reproduce with itself in order to create progeny (fruit with viable seed). This wasn’t a problem when Bradford clones were planted out in the DC suburbs, because they were all genetically identical. When the bees would visit the flowers of one tree, and then the next, the pollen was sterile and did nothing to further fruit development.  However, that was just one cultivar’s genes.

Remember when I said that Meyer walked 30+ miles a day? He covered so much ground while in China that he sent seed from Callery pear populations hundreds of miles apart. As it turns out, these populations produce genetically distinct cultivars under the species, and are totally able to cross with one another. Which they did once all those populations were brought together to intermingle in the US.

When the other ornamental selections like “White House” and “Autumn Blaze” showed up on the streets, the self-sterile Bradford pears soon became promiscuous in the neighborhood. By 1980, 300,000 Callery pear trees had been planted as street trees, producing huge amounts of small fruit with viable seed. From there, seedlings spread far and wide via birds and raccoons.

Today, in certain areas of the US, Callery pear seedlings can be found inhabiting fence-lines and ecologically stressed out pastures/roadsides, causing everyone to scream INVASIVE! THEY’RE INVASIVE! OMG KILL THEM. I CAN’T EVEN THINK STRAIGHT RIGHT NOW. EWWWW. IS THAT SPERM I SMELL? KILL.

But let’s take it out of all caps for a moment and go a bit deeper, because they deserve a chance.

Why is it so successful in the landscape?

Look, when you get into research about exotic plant species in the US, a huge majority of papers are biased in their research scope to focus on their invasiveness rather than what they offer. For instance, this paper (and there are many like this) decided to go ahead and only name one bird, the invasive European Starling, as being responsible for spreading callery pear in the landscape.

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This is a type of fear mongering that I find over and over again. Rather than list the native birds that actually feed on Callery pear (there are MANY), research tends to dwell on the negative ones in order to further demonize this tree. I’ve been writing this paper for nearly 3 years (because 2 editions of this have been deleted on accident) and the only research I have been able to find listing native birds comes out of non-profit research and a masters thesis from Michigan, both BURIED in google. Over time and with much frustration given the extreme biases of US research, I decided to broaden my search for Callery pear dispersal in other countries, and the following is what I found out of Australia:

Size of fruit matters given the diversity of birds.
Size of fruit matters given the diversity of birds.

As you can see from the diagram above, the size of fruit directly corresponds with the number of frugivorous bird species that eat them. Like most ornamental fruit trees, Callery pear’s small fruit (8.5mm on average) is relished by birds, especially since they often have a tendency to hang on the tree well into winter- providing some much needed winter food for the birds that stick around.

Ok, so lets briefly put this all together: Ornamental= small fruit= bird food= birds poop= up comes Callery pear= produces thorns so not browsed= very tolerant of all the diseases= very tolerant of any soil type= it grows and thrives. But also, the Southeast is seriously just like China’s native range for Callery Pear (dark grey)…

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232682928_The_Beginning_of_a_New_Invasive_Plant_A_History_of_the_Ornamental_Callery_Pear_in_the_United_States
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232682928_The_Beginning_of_a_New_Invasive_Plant_A_History_of_the_Ornamental_Callery_Pear_in_the_United_States

I have two trains of thought that I’d like to go down: Fruit size and human impact on the land

1.) Fruit size: The average untamed fenceline in my climate contains autumn olive, barberry, multiflora rose, Callery pear, oriental bittersweet, honeysuckle, greenbriar, flowering dogwood, privet, american holly, hackberry, black cherry and a growing number of ailanthus. With exception to Ailanthus (which has a winged seed), what do all of these species have in common? They all produce fruits less than 15mm in size. Whenever there is a perch, such as a fenceline or a powerline, you’ll often see these species because they have small fruits that birds eat. The reason why we see so many Callery pear along these areas as well as in old fields and the built environment leads me towards the second thought…

2.) Human impact on land. Unlike many of the other species I mentioned in the paragraph above, Callery pear can thrive in compacted, low nutrient, poor draining soil with blazing sun and oppressive humidity. The reason why we see so much of it is because it thrives where humans have arrived and destroyed. Places like old fields, for example, which are are nutrient poor and compacted due to the robber-farmer that took more than the field could supply. Often in my area, those fields once supported tobacco and now are hayed by good-ole boy farmers in the area to keep the property in ag taxation for the owner, but no one ever puts any love/nutrition back into the land. What will grow in this scenario? Callery.

How can we make these pears less invasive?

Trying to conquer the Callery pear using agri-chemicals is dumb and only playing into industry-wide fear mongering in order to get us to buy their products. Birds gonna be birds, y’all, and though we’re doing a spectacular job at killing birds, there isn’t much we can do to stop them from eating Callery pears and pooping in marginalized areas. To think we can kill enough Callery pear to make a difference is a lesson in futility. So, with that said, here are my top ways to make Callery pear less invasive:

1.) Breeding. What makes Callery pear invasive is its ability to produce copious amounts of small fruits. It seems logical, then, to want to try and breed larger fruits into our populations of Callery in order to stop the spread by birds. I have some ideas of how to do this in a controlled way (which I won’t go into on this essay), but this is happening in the wild already. Throughout the South and Southern New England, I’ve noticed trees that strongly look to be be hybrids of P. calleryana with P. communis (French) and/or P. pyrifolia (Asian). These trees have much larger fruits, often golfball sized or larger and are often loaded with fruits dripping from the trees. Little (or no) research has been done to evaluate the genetics of these larger fruited callery-like pears to see what exactly they are hybridized with, but if ever someone acquired funding to test the DNA, I’ll heartedly help supply specimens for evaluation.

But what is needed to hybridize these pears and get them larger? For starters, you’re going to need a collection of pears that bloom at the same time as Callery, which is quite early. Russian/Cold Climate and Asian pears are likely your best bet for this, but this is also a random list I found online:

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Next, you’re gonna need to go into your pear thicket and do some cutting and grafting. I would recommend getting a forestry mulcher in and cut/mulch rows into the existing Callery stand. Then, get a group together to cut out trees within the row you left standing so the remaining are at 15 foot spacings. Then top the trees you’ve left behind and graft on the early blooming large fruited cultivars. In 2 years, your top-worked pears will be flowering and that’s all part of your plan, as bees will mingle between surrounding Callery and the large-fruited cultivars you grafted. All of a sudden, your chances of getting larger fruit to come up from that fertilized seed will exponentially increase.

I’ve been doing this bit by bit with with my business partners along the farm fenceline and after seeing how 2018 and 2019 topworked pears will be producing fruit this year, we decided to go big and do the whole fenceline. This year I’m grafting 40 or so cultivars onto the fence for evaluation and to hold them for a bit in a makeshift repository.

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One of the main reasons why Callery didn’t catch on as a rootstock, aside from propagation and hardiness, is that they weren’t dessert fruit. This is the same reason why we’ve lost SO MANY fruit cultivars in the last 100 years. If you weren’t a dessert cultivar chosen by the cooperative extension to be grown in the early 20th century, you were phased out. However, in today’s markets, large fruited Callery pear hybrids really have a chance in fermentation, specifically cider blends and perry (cider made from pears). They are high in sugar (over 16% brix on average for the 200 or so hybridized trees I’ve evaluated), and run the gamut in acidity, tannins, aromatics and unusual characteristics. Since these trees are so disease and pest tolerant which allows them to grow and produce copious amounts of fruit without the hand of humans or chemicals, they stand to produce the most sustainable fruits and alcohol in the Southeast. We need more people working with them in order to make this happen because they aren’t apples and they need their own methods.

2.) Use them as rootstocks! Every Callery pear growing is automatically the best rootstock around. For all of you people out there who are inundated with deer pressure, graft to the Callery pears above the deer browse. Sure, you’ll get lots of leafy re-growth off the trunk for a few years, but guess what- it’s really easy to remove with pruners and new shoots don’t have thorns. You’ll start to get fruit in 2-3 years.

I honestly think that Callery pears are the beginning the South needs to produce award winning, truly sustainable alcohols and fruit products. Southern wine that is drinkable is almost entirely made from grapes that are doused with chemicals (though there are some promising hybrids). Apples are the same way, unfortunately, outside of a handful of amazing grower/fermenters. Pears, though. Hybrid Callery or simply larger fruited Callery have a lot to offer, we only need to get over the absurd emotional press and embrace them (figuratively, as they often have thorns).

*The little girl in the photo is the author, circa 1986, for use as Callery clickbait*

The Launch of HogTree

Last year I went through a collapse. The best I can describe it is the imagery of me walking down a dirt road while being shot with arrows. I tried to pull them out and fight back with the first few shots, but more shots  continued to hit and sink into my flesh. By late fall, the fight was gone in me. I was bleeding out and in a dark place. I had no choice but to let the darkness envelop me.

During this period of time, I questioned myself, my life, my passions. I felt hollow. What was it all for? If I am to pursue my passions, will I always suffer like this? And how much more can I handle before it’s no longer worth it?  As these questions floated by me in the darkness, I heard a voice whisper: “Eliza, you are here to love apples.

It wasn’t the first time and I have a feeling it won’t be the last time that apples pull me out of depression. Slowly and incrementally, I started to give myself time to think about the things I loved and the patterns of my life. With each passing day of thinking about what I loved, business plans emerged. Caution and negative feelings turned into strategy. Conducting a personal inventory on what I had in my possession turned into talks, workshops, and mulberry trees for sale. When put all together, HogTree emerged.

 

HogTree Logo

 

First of all, what is HogTree? 

HogTree is a diversified orchard system designed and synched to the rotation and feeding of livestock while also growing commercial process fruit. Imagine a paddock filled with trees that drop fruit/nuts at the same time. Now imagine many paddocks incrementally dropping fruit from May through November. That is HogTree.

I have mulberry cultivars that will drop fruit from May through July. I have around 30 apple cultivars that, when put in order, will drop fruit from late June through November. I have special genetics gathered from notable Quaker horticulturalists like J. Russell Smith, John Hershey and Yardley Taylor to add to this system as well, including: persimmons, chinquapins, chestnuts, pears, pecans, oaks and hickories. In essence, HogTree is a practical arboretum designed to preserve rare or otherwise unwanted cultivars in order to feed livestock…and more.

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Summer drop scheme for apples in my area.

Why would you design an orchard to feed livestock? Because that’s the first income layer. If you are going to start an orchard, you’ll need to make some income during the time it takes for the orchard to start bearing (This is also important when trying to get a loan from the bank).  Some people grow annual vegetables and I think that’s perfectly fine, however I do not want to spend all of my time bending over. I’m a much happier person if I reach up rather than down. I also want to incorporate an income stream which will help manage the orchard throughout its lifetime. After a few years of having pigs in orchards, I’ve discovered that pigs do the job of an unskilled intern and deposit fertility in the process.

What about the second layer? That’s commercial process fruit production. Interspersed within these paddocks in inventive ways are cultivars which grow well for me in this area and have a high quality in value-added markets. These fruits will be mostly managed by livestock with a few steps of intervention coming from humans. Though it’s 5-6 years out, I’ve already promised this fruit to amazing makers/friends/business people who will not only treasure this fruit and turn it into the best product they can, but who also give a shit about our impacts on this earth and humanity. My fruit will go towards producing products with a positive and aware message.

Ugly Apples

Before I go to the next layer, I also need to put out a disclaimer. When I first got into apples, I wanted to grow alllll the varieties. I wanted to find uses for them all, so people could feel as rich as I felt when having access to hundreds of varieties/tastes/textures/uses.  I started growing heirloom apples for cider because they otherwise had no market due to natural cosmetic blemishes/weirdness, but were too special and delicious to me to not be given a purpose. In growing them for livestock first, process second, I’m giving them a new niche.

Is there a third layer?  Yes, the nursery layer. This year I’m selling the Hicks Everbearing Mulberry along with what we think is Stubbs Everbearing Mulberry (positive ID coming next month (May)) through HogTree. Both were championed by J. Russell Smith and John Hershey for being the original “Hog Trees,” with each tree responsible for feeding pigs and chickens for 3+ months in the South.  I sold 250 newly grafted trees in January, which are shipping out now, but this coming winter I will be selling hundreds more as 4-5 foot tall trees. In the next few years, I’ll start to sell the apples, chestnuts, chinquapins and persimmons that are part of my drop scheme. HogTree is an orchard system.  In selling these trees, I’m selling the order in which they belong in the scheme.

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Fourth Layer? Of course!:  Talks. Workshops. Tours. Helping people to learn from my mistakes. U-Pick (If you have a system designed to efficiently rotate livestock through, humans are no different).

There are more layers, but this is the 5 year layout as of right now. Now to reality!

What do I have right now? I have an 8 month lease on 10 acres in Loudoun County, Northern Virginia. The 8 month lease is so I can prep the ground for orchards to go in this winter with pigs (an annual income), while also keeping  a healthy dose of caution related to land tenure. In 8 months, the landlord and I should be able to see if it’s a good fit and will then discuss a long-term lease.  I’ve been burned badly in regards to land tenure and much like being in a romantic relationship, I do not feel comfortable planting trees which will be around for my lifetime after the first couple dates between me and the landlord. Working with pigs as my first activity on this new property feels safe, whole and doable.

10 pigs will be arriving in early May from David Crafton, of 6 Oaks Farm. He is a passionate wealth of information and all of his pigs are from pasture genetics, so they contain the necessary gut biome to raise them in an orchard-in-the-making setting. He has been working for years to develop his own breed, the Carolina Forest Spot Hog, but in waiting for this breed I’m receiving a heritage-breed mix from him largely consisting of a large black x tamworth cross and bluebutt crosses. The goal is 200+ pounds of delicious marbled red meat in 7 months with them eating 90% pasture/fodder. I’m excited to work with them.

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With that said, this timeline is how I currently predict HogTree will be developed in the next few years:

Year 1: The land is responsibly “pigged,” removing grubs, spreading minerals/nutrients and planting cover crops after them in order to prep the ground for orchard plantings. This is also a trial run for a long-term lease with the landowner. These pigs will be supplemented with some off-farm feed (non gmo peas, barley and whey mostly) because they are working to transition a blank canvas/pasture into an orchard and will need some supplement to grow within my 7 month time frame. HogTree the nursery sells mulberry trees online.

Year 2: (If pig year 1 pans out, otherwise repeat yr 1 on new piece of property), I will be planting fodder trees and fruit tree rootstock. Considering fodder trees,  I have the genetics for trees whose leaves are as nutritious as alfalfa and way more drought tolerant, providing high digestibility/minerality and nutrition when the grass starts to underperform. These trees will be harvested annually starting in year 3. HogTree continues to sell mulberries online.

Year 3: The fruit tree rootstocks will be topworked (grafted). In addition to pasture, the pigs will be eating tree fodder and early season mulberry fruit by this point.  HogTree sells summer apples and mulberry trees online.

Year 4: Pigs will hopefully start to taste their first apples off some trees. They will continue to eat pasture and leaf fodder from the trees. The full gamut of fruit trees will be available through HogTree.

Year 5+: Pigs will be fed/fattened/finished off tree leaves, fruit, nuts and pasture. Harvests for process fruits will begin.

*In order to make this vision and business plan work, I will need the investment of consumers. That means I am opening up a waiting list for 20lb box/quarter/half/whole hogs for the 2018 year. Please realize that in buying this pork, you are supporting the future of HogTree’s orchard system, which will show the important links between animals and orchards. Please consider buying pork from me if you want to see HogTree set this orchard system into motion. Click here to get on the waiting list!*

Wanted: June Ripening Apples (and Pears)

IF YOU HAVE INFO ON ACTUAL TREES RIPENING APPLES/PEARS IN JUNE IN ZONE 7 OR COLDER, COMMENT ON THIS BLOG!!! 

Summer apples are rarely of interest to most apple growers and consumers. Compared to their later season kin, they bruise easily, are often described as lacking texture (or “mealy”), low in sugar, and having a very high acidity. They might not seem very fun from this brief description, and I’ll go into detail of why these apples are fun for me in a bit, but first: Light hearted stereotypes of people who find/have found summer apples to be exciting:

1.) Elderly people from New England & other places labeled “Cold as Hell”

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Picture taken from a google search

In my own personal experience, 90% of people over the age of 80 know of the Russian cultivars “Red Astrachan” and/or “Yellow Transparent” because of apple sauce. These are the first popular apple cultivars to ripen in New England and have a relatively thin skin that disintegrates when cooked down into sauce. That disintegrating skin quality, by the way, is a big factor defining a “sauce apple.” If you have to peel it before you cook it/have to use a food mill to get the peels out: It’s not a true sauce apple.

I made some apple sauce this year from an old Yellow Transparent tree in Northern VA (Apples cored, halved + Pot + Stovetop) and my tasting audience (employees of Southern States Cooperative), thought it was too acidic. I, the person who subsists on apples for months out of the year, thought it was great. But I’ve realized that my area in Virginia has lost much of its culture surrounding summer apple sauce. In New England, it seems to still be alive…for now.

2.) People alive in the early-mid 1800s

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A woman from NY reaching for a Yellow May apple from VA, as her trees are still in bloom.

In researching early ripening apples in my home state of Virginia, I’ve run across several accounts of growers from Southern Virginia selling “Yellow May” (a June Ripening apple for them) to New York markets for a pretty penny. Turns out, before the Russian cultivars (like red astrachan and yellow transparent) hit the scene, people in the Northern states were hankering for apples in June and buying them from the South. They probably ate them, rather than making sauce, because I don’t think texture was as big of an issue as it is now (thanks, apple lobbyists).

Why am I looking for June ripening apples?

Quick answer: For animal fodder

Long answer: It is my ambition to create animal paddocks based on drop times of fruit. WHAT THIS MEANS: I will one day be able to rotate animals from paddock to paddock and have that synched with drop times. Their feed will entirely be the grass growing in the orchard and the dropped/shaken-off fruits from the next level up. I’ve done quite a bit of work/collection for the later months, but the early months are much harder.

WHAT AM I LOOKING FOR?

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Anyone north of Virginia, in mountainous areas, or familiar with the USDA plant hardiness zone map 7a/7b*: If you know of an apple that produces in June and can get access to it/provide contact info to me, I would love to hear about it. The perfect scenario is this:

1.) I’m provided with some background info on the tree you’ve identified as a June bearing apple. This includes location, what you think it might be called, when in June it bears (early June/late June) and any other info you can find (bloomtime is something that comes to mind, but not that important). This is so I can keep notes on your selections and credit you in the future! Pictures are also a huge help.

2.) You can either take scionwood from the tree or get me the contact info so I can write/call the owners and see about getting some scionwood from this tree. I will gladly pay for your time and effort. Please, before taking scionwood, reach out to me so I can make sure we are on the same page as to what scionwood actually is.

3.) You mail the scionwood to me and I compensate you and credit you in future descriptions and work!

Other items of note:

I DO NOT CARE HOW THIS APPLE TASTES/TEXTURE/SMELLS/LOOKS. AT ALL.

I DO NOT CARE WHETHER OR NOT IT GETS BAD DISEASE (but would love to hear about this if you have info)

I DO NOT CARE IF IT HAS A NAME OR NOT

I DO NOT CARE IF IT IS GRAFTED

I DO NOT CARE IF YOU ACTUALLY HAVE A JUNE BEARING PEAR. That’s amazing, too, and I want to hear about it.

I ONLY CARE IF IT BEARS IN JUNE. Come one, come all…get in touch with me if you know of a June apple bearing in slightly colder climates.

*The reason why I ask for zone 7a/7b or colder (the lower the zone number, the colder) is so I can extrapolate. If someone in zone 5 has a first week of June apple, that could very well be a mid-late May apple for me. May apples in Northern VA are non-existant as far as I know, and I’m also very interested. The earlier the bearing, the more diverse of a diet my animals get earlier in the season. 

 

 

 

 

Dwarfing Mulberries: An Afternoon with Dr. A.J. Bullard

“Over here are the mulberries. This one is a pure Morus rubra that produces 2 inch fruits.” “Liza. Can you tell me what is different about this tree?”

This is the way of Dr. A.J. Bullard. He playfully taunts you with little snippets from his 70+ years of tree knowledge and then immediately follows it up by asking you seemingly impossible questions. “What is different about this tree?” 

Dr. A.J. Bullard isn’t a former horticultural professor, but a former baseball player and Dentist who is a botanical wiz. He reads botanical textbooks and then writes letters consisting of page upon page of single spaced revisions and fact checking to the authors. The most common complaint he voiced to me in reading these texts was how everyone seems to copy information from book to book rather than doing the research for themselves. Dr. Bullard is that man, the guy who has studied the intricacies of the Southeastern plant world so thoroughly and in real life that he often receives identification questions which have stumped the arboretums and universities (and he figures them out).

I didn’t know this about A.J when I went to visit him. I knew of him as the former president of the North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX) who probably knows more about mulberries than anyone in the US. His knowledge is integral to the advancement of mulberries as a tree crop in the United States.

This blog post/essay is in relation to a running conversation about mulberries that I’ve had with A.J ever since we met (my boyfriend would tell you that I talk to A.J on the phone more than I talked to him when we first started dating).  The full conversation will be in the form of a presentation at this year’s annual NAFEX/NNGA conference in Tifton, Georgia. Among the multitudes of reasons why you should be there, hearing A.J. talk is one very, very good reason.


“What is different about this tree?” 

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Slowly, we approached the above pictured mulberry tree and he asks us again: “What is different about this mulberry tree?” I think on it for a bit and come up with nothing, so he asks again. “What do you see that is different with this tree?” I got nothing, A.J. No idea. “What about the height? It’s no taller than 12 feet,” he says. Ah, right…mulberries aren’t normally 12 feet tall unless they are a naturally dwarfing cultivar. “Correct!” “What if I told you this wasn’t a dwarf cultivar? What if I told you that I have figured out how to dwarf mulberries?”

Dear readers- Have you ever had your mind blown? It’s a flooding of immense realization and wonder and excitement, all at the same time. What I’m about to tell you not only blew my mind, but in a strange way paralleled my own exploits.

Dwarfing trees is a huge deal these days. Thousands and thousands of orchard acres are getting converted yearly into dwarfing orchards because 1.) more trees per acre=more fruit per acre 2.) smaller trees are easier and cheaper to manage/harvest. If you pick up an fruit industry magazine, there’s usually a very good chance of the magazine featuring one article on the promise of better dwarfing rootstock for pears/cherries/peaches/name fruit tree in the coming years because that’s where the industry is headed. However, there are some downsides to all of this and it’s usually in these three sectors: Costs (because trellis systems or support posts are expensive, Longevity (dwarfing rootstocks are shorter lived, maybe 25 years), and Input (these trees require tending from humans or else they’ll suffer and/or die).

What A.J has done to get dwarfing mulberries would allow an orchardist to fit close to 200 mulberry trees per acre. It costs less than, say, planting the same number of apple trees per acre on an m26 rootstock (semi-dwarfing) because the trees you plant are able to stand up without the need for support posts. They are longer lived (the trees pictured are 40 years old). And there are no chemical or water inputs necessary (other than establishment necessities).

Mulberry trees are naturally tall for fruit trees, usually around 30 feet or more (for M.alba and M.alba x M.rubra hybrids). Given the standard size, if you were to prune heavily every year, you could probably fit 70 trees per acre (more like 40 trees per acre if you didn’t prune heavily). With Dr. Bullard’s dwarfing methods, you could likely plant 3-5 times that amount per acre. Which, just to throw it out there, would be an incredible set up not only for people wanting to sell mulberries, but also for pastured chicken or pastured pork operations (more about that later).

Alright, so what goes into Bullard’s dwarfing methods? Note: What I’m about to discuss is only an hypothesis. We don’t know what is actually going on, but this is our best guess. Well, we think the name of the game is incompatibility. If you study the history of apple rootstocks like I have, it’s only a matter of time until you start to come across accounts of rootstocks (aka, the roots to which you graft your cultivar/scion/variety) imparting various characteristics into the cultivar/variety (here’s a fun essay on the subject I wrote last December). Some characteristics include a change in flavor, tree size, fruit size, disease resistance, yields, and death, among other things. Some of these characteristics (like death) are deemed incompatibilities. Keep this in mind.

Alright, so what did A.J do?

He took Morus alba (white mulberry- brought over from Russia in the 1600’s for silk production) and to it, he grafted Morus rubra (red mulberry-our native mulberry) or a rubra x alba hybrid. He planted the grafted trees in pots and let the rubra send out a vigorous shoot. Then he tightly wrapped a copper wire just above the graft union and buried the whole tree, leaving a small amount above ground. What grew up from there became a dwarf mulberry tree. Across the boards. At one point in time, he had an orchard of around 150 cultivars and he employed this method to fit them all into his yard. If you look at the above picture, you’ll see other dwarfed mulberry trees- all different cultivars.

He put the trees on their own roots using a method very similar to the one I made up 2 years ago (which you can read about in this essay). That’s part of the reason why my mind was blown, because I’ve been down this rabbit hole before with apples; only with A.J I got a chance to see a glimpse of what the future could possibly look like for my experiments. And also, there are major agricultural implications for this (a later essay).

Why does it work? We’re not totally sure, but we both think it could be some form of incompatibility transferred from the M. alba into the M.rubra which imbedded itself into the scion/variety/cultivar by the time the rootstock/nurse root girdled off and the tree was on it’s own roots. That incompatibility caused dwarfing. If you look at the ground where tree hits soil, you’ll see a bulge. Perhaps that’s where the vigor went.

Anyways- this is all very exciting and details of all of this, including how exactly to do it (which I’m doing as we speak) will happen this year at the NAFEX annual meeting in Tifton, Georgia.

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HELP WANTED! Fruit exploring for Hopewell Nurseries

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I am soon to launch The Fruit Explorers (.com) webpage, which will exist to be a resource/hub for fruit exploring projects happening around the country. But for now, I am crowdsourcing help for a huge project to find the genetics from Hopewell Nurseries, a pre-Civil War nursery which sold thousands of fruit trees, grape vines and roses (many of which are extinct cultivars).

The ledger from this nursery has been discovered and dates from 1833 to 1860. This ledger contains the names of people who bought trees and often their addresses, which is an absolute gold mine for fruit preservationists/explorers because there may still be trees/vines standing on some of these properties. Many of the cultivars produced by this nursery are now thought to be extinct…so here’s our chance to try and find what’s left. But time’s a ticking! These trees will be well past maturity and the threat of development in this area is a daily pressure on the landscape. We need to create some awareness and get information ASAP in order to see if anything still exists.

We need the following for step 1:
-TELE-RESEARCH VOLUNTEERS. For those interested in volunteering, Eliza will hold a “google hangout” to explain how she uses the public domain (internet) to do fruit exploring research. A volunteer has already gone through the ledger and typed out 26 pages of names and we need to find what we can about these people. Where they lived, if they were members of horticultural societies, etc. You can do this from the comforts of your own home (or work). This is a massive undertaking that can only happen with the help of others. Once we get this information, we’ll all be able to start searching!

If you are interested, please leave a comment below! And check out the catalog for what Hopewell Nurseries once sold!
https://archive.org/details/catalogueoffruit1859hope

On their own roots

A long time ago, orchard and nursery people often grafted scions from known cultivars onto dug-up root pieces from apple trees. This was one of the ways in which orchardists and nurserypeople were able to propagate specific varieties rather than getting something completely random from seed. The other way was to graft onto existing trees (called top-working, or top-grafting) or onto rootstock produced by planting seeds.

 

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Root grafting (on purpose) has largely disappeared as a horticultural practice due to the rise of clonal rootstocks. We are now able to decide what size tree we want and how soon we’d like the tree to bear apples, which has been the primary cause for eliminating old “standard” sized trees from the landscape.  In fact, you wouldn’t believe how many old orchards I visit where the owners have been told by the extension service to cut down the old orchard and plant high density apples…

It’s true that high density apple systems have proven themselves to make more money than trees able to stand up by themselves (in a high-input dessert fruit market), but I’m not totally sold on that model when it comes to growing process fruit for cider, pies, etc. I’ve run the numbers (which I’ll share soon) and you’d have to plant many, many acres of apples to make it work out financially (if you were to sell wholesale and not turn them into your own value-added products). After it’s all said and done, you’ve got an orchard that can live for 25 years on a spacing that makes it hard to “stack functions,” or grow other crops/animals within your system to have a diversified income (which is necessary for me)

*Disclaimer* I have heard from a smart orchardist outside of Pittsburg who is growing black raspberries on the same trellissing as his high density apples with wild success.

 

Eliza fameuse tree

Back to root grafts:

  • Yes, these trees are often times very large compared with apple trees grown on clonal rootstocks.
  • Yes, they are going to take 10-10+ years to bear fruit.
  • Yes you can only fit 55 trees per acre…

But…

  • I’ve seen a lot of old apple trees in my lifetime, like the one pictured above which is over 200 years old! That tree was root grafted and, as a result, on it’s own roots.
  • The Fruit Explorers, a group of which I’m a founding member (along with Pete Halupka of Harvest Roots Farm and Ferment), traveled around the South last year looking for all sorts of apple trees. By far, the healthiest trees we found were those on standard rootstock or growing on their own roots. We were in the hot, humid, zone 7a-8a South which is known for all sorts of rots, fireblight strikes, fungal infections…you name it. And the trees that looked the best were the big ones. All of this observation caused me to believe that we probably have the best chances of growing low-input trees if they are on big roots.
  • I can grow other crops in the rows between the trees. I can graze animals. I can have a diversified income stream while waiting for the orchard to come into bearing and for the canopies to narrow the rows.
  • The trees will be of uniform size if you are root grafting the same cultivars within the row
  • Who’s to say these trees won’t each drop 100 bushels of apples a piece?

Basically, all of this is to say: I think that root grafting isn’t such a bad idea for an orchard if you have the space and the time.  I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll have the space in the next couple years, so the remainder of this blog post is about my thoughts and actual practices of root grafting…

This year, I ordered 1000 southern crabapple trees from the Maryland State Nursery (Malus angustifolia). I decided on M. angustifolia because I’m in the South and these crabapples are better adapted to this hot and humid climate. Also, I had already decided that I wanted standard sized trees, so why not use them as a rootstock?

Well, after I ordered them I did some digging and realized that M. angustifolia, which on average is not that large of a mature tree (maybe 20 feet), would probably not be able to handle the vigor of the heirlooms and cider varieties I wanted to graft. Across the boards, from writings I found in the 1800s to anecdotal quips from friends and thoughts from mentors, it seems like the majority of these seedlings would only be able to handle the graft for a few years and then the top would eventually outgrow the bottom, resulting in death. The success stories I read involved topworking mature, already-in-the-ground-and producing-crabapple trees OR grafting onto crabapple stock from Russia. Russian crab stock is more vigorous and able to handle the older varieties and I’ve seen evidence of this in very old orchards in Maine, where the cultivar died out and the crab stock bolted upward.

Compared to the Siberian crabapple stock we ordered last year (Malus baccata), this year’s rootstock was tiny and we were left trying to figure out how we were going to graft it because on average, our scion is larger in diameter than above the root collar. That’s when I settled on the idea of root grafting.

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This is a larger example of a the M. angustifolia crabapple we received from Maryland.

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I use a foot powered saddle grafter much of the time to save my hands because I battle carpel tunnel due to repetitive orchard/nursery movements combined with being on the computer too much of the time.

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This is what we’ve done to many, many crabapple trees. We took the root, made a grafting cut (some whip and tongue, many saddle, some omega and some cleft). Roots are often difficult for me to graft because many of them aren’t straight, but squiggly. This is where the saddle grafter came in handy, or we employed the cleft graft.

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We left the scions larger when grafted. Usually, you only need a bud or two for grafting but I decided to leave 5-6 buds for reasons I’ll tell you about later in this post.

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Pictured above is the final product. We grafted the scion to the root, wrapped it with a rubber band to make sure the union was nice and tight, and then wrapped the graft union/rubber band in parafilm (wax tape) from top to bottom. Some of you might be thinking: A rubber band PLUS parafilm! That’s overkill! And it is, to an extent (though it is pretty much a guaranteed take if you are able to make your vascular cambiums line up). But here’s why we did it…

By itself, horticultural rubber bands will degrade in the sun and fall off the tree within a certain time period so you don’t have to worry about it girdling the tree. By itself, parafilm will also degrade/expand/drop off a tree later in the season without it girdling the tree. TOGETHER, however, your tree is doomed for girdling unless you manually get out there in the summer and cut it off in time. I learned this the hard way, folks.

Why are we using this rubber band/parafilm method for grafting a root when I won’t be able to cut it off due to it being buried in the soil? Well- the answer is this: I want the girdling. Before I put this all together for you, I need to go on a brief tangent (which connects, I promise).

Last summer, we visited with Jason Bowman of Horne Creek Historical Farm (one of the sites that has Lee Calhoun‘s entire collection) and he was kind enough to take us through the orchard. Every year, I notice something different about trees and during this particular visit, I noticed how tree form differs from cultivar to cultivar. This is nothing new, really, because I’ve pruned many different cultivars of apples and they are all different. But this time, my knowledge of what trees had better disease resistances combined/confirmed with Jason’s were overlayed with tree form. I started to notice how apple varieties like the Dula Beauty naturally had wide crotch angles, creating better natural airflow and therefore, less fungal problems because humidity wasn’t being trapped within the tree as readily as some other varieties.

Keeping this in mind, I’ve been wanting to return my most disease resistant cultivars with excellent tree form (wide crotch angles) to growing on their own roots because I think they will require less pruning down the road (which is one of the big arguments for going to smaller trees…less and faster pruning). I want to see what size these trees will be without interference of rootstock, how many bushels of apples these trees will bear, and I want to taste an apple on it’s own roots as compared to another rootstock. That’s why we’re grafting in a way which will eventually have the root girdled from the scion (by using the rubber band/parafilm method). Alone, it’s fairly difficult for an apple cutting (scion) to produce roots on it’s own, so that’s why we’re grafting it to the crab roots. I want this crab stock to be a nurse to the scion, keeping the scion alive and fed while it starts to produce it’s own roots, and then to die off!

We left the scions long on these roots (5-6 buds rather than 2-3) to give room above the graft union to plant the scion. We’re going to try out two methods for this:

1.) We’re going to plant the whole thing and leave 2-3 buds sticking out of the ground. There will be irrigation.

2.) We’re going to plant the root and the graft union, and then cover the soil with several inches of sawdust which will be under irrigation. The area where damp sawdust contacts the scion should encourage root growth into that space.

When the time comes for digging these trees up and transplanting them, in a year or two, we may cut off the crab root if it’s still attached and alive. We’ll see! Updates to follow whenever we dig these things up (starting in the winter of 2016/2017).

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Cider And Heirloom Apple Vigor: An Hypothesis

Recently, I was on the phone with a mentor and we were discussing hedgerows (my new pet project, aside from brewing all sorts of alcohol). With some of the species I mentioned, I was told that livestock would eat them down to nothing and render the hedgerow useless. After having a few tree species rejected, I frustratingly asked: “What if I planted my hedgerows with invasives like multi-flora rose, then?!”

Without any hesitation, my mentor said: “Invasives like multi-flora rose are very delicious to many animals, like my goats.  You might be suggesting invasive plants for your hedgerow because they are vigorous and seem to outcompete everything else, but try to think about vigor from another perspective. If plants with high vigor are also the most sought after by animals, don’t you think that vigor might be an evolutionary trait to survive browse?”

This is the first time I’ve heard this perspective on invasives and I’ve really enjoyed thinking about it. After some minimal research, I found out that the subject is still debated today by ecologists as the “plant vigor hypothesis.” Generally speaking, vigorous plants have higher nutrient densities than non-vigorous plants, so herbivores are more prone to eat them. However! If the very vigorous cultivars are able to put on a bunch of girth, many herbivores aren’t able to eat the whole thing because of their jaw size.

This, of course, has got me thinking about apples. Here’s why.

In many essays on this blog, I’ve talked about how I consider many cider and heirloom cultivars to be very vigorous as compared to most of the grocery store cultivars. Vigorous cultivars are harder to prune, occupy more space (so less trees per acre), have issues with vegetative vs fruit bud proportions, etc. In general, they are harder to grow.  After reading more about this “plant vigor hypothesis,” I wonder if there is a connection between vigor and nutrient density in apples cultivars?

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From an evolutionary standpoint, a correlation between vigor and nutrient density makes sense to me. Many wild crab apples in the US have much higher tannins (aka polyphenols, which =nutrition density) than cultivated varieties. This is from the many lifetimes spent co-evolving with insects and herbivores who are trying to eat them. From observing crabapples in the “wild” and planted in landscapes, it seems as if many trees have low vigor and perhaps this is because they have evolved to have an unpalatable deterrence for animals and humans alike?

In hard cider, many of the wild crabs are too much for our palates to handle and though very nutritious, they will cause a harsh and likely negative consumer experience. So what have we done? Over time, cider drinkers/makers/apple growers have selected cultivars to grow which are palatable to the consumer, but also contain enough tannins (or polyphenols, or natural defense) to give the cider some substance.  Could it be that in selecting not-so-astringent apple cultivars for eating/drinking, we’re unknowingly selecting for more tree vigor? If the apple cultivar hasn’t evolved enough to deter herbivores through astringent taste, then do genetics dictate that it must rely on vigor to survive? 

These sorts of questions make me excited and I’ll keep learning about these processes in order to try and uncover different management ideas that don’t involve regulating vigor through the use of dwarfing rootstocks, black magic hormonal potions like Apogee (which converts vegetative buds into fruiting buds), and planting in light soils. All of those management aspects, I suspect, are making the vigorous cultivars less vigorous/more fibrous/less nutrient dense.

Thoughts to be continued, but in the meantime here are a few off the top of my head:

Thought 1: Pruning extremely vigorous varieties like an herbivore in order to get faster fruit set?

Thought 2: Continuing to fruit explore to find mixes of wild x cultivated which hit high nutrient densities, palatability, and lower vigor.  (I’m writing a fruit exploring book about how to do this at the moment)

Thought 3: Making crabapples a significant part of my home breeding program.

 

 

Apples With Special Needs

Albemarle Pippin (as we call it here in Virginia) is, in my opinion, one of the best crossover apples around. It’s great in cider, keeps well, is a wonderful fresh eating apple, and does well baked… win win win win. But its one of those apples that has special needs.

Actually, most apple cultivars have their own special needs! Yet, it seems as if these needs are only addressed in terms of hardiness (some Southern apple cultivars do not survive the cold areas of the North, for example). For this oversight, along with many other oversights I often complain about, I’m going to blame the cooperative extension service and the connected land grant university.

With the rise of land grant universities and the extension service  in the early 1900s, agriculture across the US started to become less diverse and more transportable/marketed. Extension agents, who even in 1914 were pawns of bankers, merchants, and railroad tycoons, started to spread the gospel of planting certain cultivars over others because they:

  1. Stored well (railroad tarrifs $$),
  2. Produced more annually than biennally (Merchants $$)
  3. Had less vigor
  4. Larger and more beautiful (red delicious was discovered in 1880)

Translate this into today’s time, and that’s why you have what I like to call “The Grocery Store 9”. Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Gala, Fuji, Honeycrisp, Pink Lady, Braeburn.

Ever since I started growing heirlooms, I noticed that some did well on certain sites while others didn’t do well at all. I noticed how in the shale dominated soils of Southwestern Virginia, the Newtown (Albemarle) Pippin didn’t do so well on its own (even on m111). After cataloging all of the Newrton Pippin diseases and doing a bit of study, I found a common denominator: there must not be enough calcium for this tree. 

If you were to take a soil test and send it off to the nearest lab with the apple box checked for analysis, they will send you something back that is meant for the grocery store 9. Not a calcium hungry-cultivar like Albemarle Pippin. If you follow their recommendations word-for-word and put down x tons of lime per acre, it probably won’t help you all that much.

This is for two reasons. 1.) The recommended amount is probably not enough calcium for this particular cultivar and 2.) The uptake of calcium by a tree doesn’t happen instantly. If you apply calcium to the soil, it will take years for the roots to get it to the fruit. If you apply calcium as a foliar spray, studies also show that it doesn’t do all that much good. So how do you get calcium into a needy tree? (Just to mention: I’m leaving out magnesium from this essay because I’m not going that in-depth tonight. Sorry, soil nerds.)

Some people recommend liming the hell out of a site before planting a tree. By the time your tree starts to hit productive maturity, the calcium will have finally made it high enough in order to be made available to the tree. Other people might still recommend the labor intensive (and often expensive) repeated applications of lime by foliar or soil (even though it doesn’t work all that well). Elaine Ingham has me thinking it could be a matter of soil microbiology, where the roots and the soil don’t have the right microbial/mycorrhizal cocktail needed for more effective uptake. (Also-the lack of soil microbiology could partially be attributed to the yearly herbicide applications to kill all grass under apple tree rows in conventional orchards). Or maybe it could be the different rootstocks? Lots of variables here to consider….and then I thought: MAYBE THIS TREE DOESN’T WANT TO GROW HERE.

Today I found this from 1864:

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I stumbled across this article because #thefruitexplorers found one hell of an old grafted persimmon tree this month and I was looking into the history of the landowner. The landowner’s father, Yardley Taylor, was a well known horticulturalist in the area where I’m living and wrote lots of articles back in the 1800s, one specifically in answer to the complaint of: My Newtown Pippins don’t grow well here.

Yardley’s claims of “elevated limestone valleys” being the place for the Newtown Pippin makes sense. Limestone soils are rich in calcium. Where I was in SWVA, the bedrock material under the Albemarle Pippins was gneiss, schist and granite. No hint of limestone, less than ideal Albemarle Pippin quality.

There is so much knowledge left to uncover from people who once grew these cultivars in a less input-driven system. By input-driven, I mean the agriculture we know has been built on applications of outside products, often produced by large agribusiness (who funds land grant university research). What if we got back to growing cultivars that actually thrive in a specific place? I believe that’s called terroir, and it’s completely doable with apples. In order to do it, though, we may have to sacrifice low vigor, or annual bearing, or the ability to be shipped. But that’s ok… not all apples need to be for fresh eating. We’re in the grasps of a huge cider boom!  Lets keep uncovering these special needs, everyone! It’s up to us citizens to do it.

albemarle Pippin

Fruit Exploring: Hunting the Vermont Beauty

Today I ate 6 pears, 11 apples. I tasted 14 pears, 24 apples. I managed to drop off apples at my rendezvous point on time for the delivery guy, and all else after that meeting at noon went down hill. Tis the season to be perpetually late to appointments/meetings due to the abundance of fruit on the roadside.  Also: Tis the season for elevated fiber consumption and trying to deal with it.

I’ve wanted to write a blog post about fruit exploring for ages now, as it is an exciting and integral part of my fruit life. Today’s essay will only be a brief glimpse, as I am writing a book on the subject at the moment. But I wanted to take a moment to tell you about my Tuesday.

Earlier this year, I was putting away the “Pears of New York” book by U.P Hedrick and had this impulse to open it and look at one of the colored plates. When I opened it, the pear I landed on was called “Vermont Beauty.” I’m right across the lake from Vermont and one of the orchards I work with is in Vermont, so I decided to read on…

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From this book, I learned that this pear was a seedling planted out by Benjamin Macomber of Grand Isle, VT…an island in Lake Champlain. I currently live across the street from Lake Champlain! So, I got to hunting. The first step in fruit exploring is research, which occupied an entire Sunday. After having an idea of where to look for this pear, I called my good Vermont friend Meg Giroux and we went fruit exploring for this pear over Memorial Day Weekend.

Fruit exploring involves a lot of cold-knocking. “Hi. My name is Eliza; I’m a fruit preservationist and I have a story to tell you [insert story for specific fruit]…. Do you know if you have any fruit trees on your property?” That is the usual gist of my approach, full of smiling and excitement. Only once, in Georgia, have I been turned away…

We were looking for the remnants of an old 40-acre orchard we discovered through a local Georgia historian who knew a lot about peaches, brandy and a particular Southern family’s plantation drama/legacy. Thanks to his directions, we were right in the epicenter of where the orchard once was and we decided to go door to door knocking, seeking permission to check out the apple trees possibly growing on their property. We knocked on one door and the people were obviously home, just not answering. I left a message on their car about why we were there, how we’d love to look at their orchard (which is the only remnant we could find of the once 40 acre orchard), and my contact information. I got a call later that day: “Hai, I’m lookin’ for Elyyyzuh. My husban’ tol me to call yew and tell yew that yew are not welcome on our properteee.” After I tried to tell her that we were only interested in their apple trees, she kept interpreting/spitting condemning words for her husband, who I could hear in the background.

Upset and saddened by their isolationist/paranoid ways, I wrote the pastor of their church (because we previously talked with the home owner’s mother who told us they belonged to the church on the hill) and asked the pastor to preach a lesson on “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2). And then proceeded to tattle on the couple, because if anyone knows me well, you know that I have band of “angels unawares” by my side.

Anyways, back to Vermont. After knocking on every single door we thought might have a property with fruit trees attached to it, we were given wide-spread permission to look around. We found an old, old pear. An old old apple. Another old property with an old pear and apple, etc. And after finding a map from the 1800s, we found an old, old apple orchard. Excited, I promised myself to go back in the fall when they had fruit. AND BOY DO THEY HAVE FRUIT.

This story will be about the first pear tree we found, which I checked first with fingers crossed in hopes that the fruit wasn’t an early season ripener. Luckily, it wasn’t and the tree was loaded with fruit which had just decided to start dropping (!).

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I had every hope back on Memorial Day that this might be the Vermont Beauty. And, well, it may be. An extension agent recently told me that cooler temperatures instigate better color in fruit. With the downright hot fall we’ve had up until a few days ago, that could be a reason for the lack of color on this pear. Otherwise, it seems to match up decently well with the description found in “Pears of New York.” The flavor is sweet, very fine grained, has potential to be buttery-melty in the mouth once it has been given a chance to fully ripen off the tree.  I might be overly hopeful, but…

I stopped at three other properties on Tuesday, each one tied for having the oldest pear trees I’ve ever seen. Here’s one of the trunks (shoe for scale, it was completely hollowed out and probably close to 4 feet in diameter)…

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And you know what? ALL OF THE PEARS ARE THE SAME KIND!!!  They all taste the same (minus some minor soil differences); They all have that light blush on them; They all have the same shape.

I’ve since done some background research of these properties and they line up with my research as having a connection with Benjamin Macomber, the cultivator of the “Vermont Beauty.” I can’t reveal this connection just yet because it’s a chapter in my book, but just trust me for the time being that they are all connected. The rest is left to old books with descriptions so I can try to key this pear out. The trouble is finding an adequate description of it!  If in fact this is the “Vermont Beauty,” I have just found a lost variety. In order to save it, no matter what it is, all property owners have given me permission to take cuttings this winter from their trees. We might never know the name, but it has proven itself to be resilient for at least 100 years (I think closer to 200), and that is worth saving and propagating.

I hope to graft this tree this year. Some of you might ask for scionwood, which is quite alright with me, but my team and I have been trying to come up with a way to both spread the goods and retain some funding for our future fruit exploring missions.  With that said, the proceeds of this scionwood and future tree sales will go into #thefruitexplorers research fund. We poor-yet-passionate heirloom/resilient fruit nerds will ask that every propagation of this pear (or anything else we find) will spur an on-your-honor royalty donation on our soon-to-be website…and that it’s story be passed on to the new owner (who, if they decide to propagate, will carry on with the royalty donation).

Stay tuned, we have found some amazing specimens this year and there are more to come (we have loads of self-funded research that, of course, costs money). Already, we’ve found a Southern bittersweet crabapple out of Alabama which I think could be the next great Southern cider apple, showing awesome pest and disease resistance. Pending is to see if it has an annual bearing tendency.  Another is a gorgeous, insect and disease resistant (from what I can tell) “sweet” apple that lacks acidity, which Benjamin Watson touts as a great ingredient to blend with high acidity/sugar American heirlooms. Many more…we just need to get our acts together, which is a winter task.

Thoughts? Would love to hear.