How old is that apple tree?

It seems like a simple question: How old is your apple tree? Maybe, you planted the tree a couple years ago. Maybe, your dad planted it when you were a kid. Maybe you wouldn’t know without cutting down the tree and counting the rings. Please don’t do that! I’m just speaking hypothetically. But, my question isn’t really about how long ago the tree growing the apples you’re using to make your pies or hard cider was planted. I’m really talking about the history of the piece of wood used to ensure the type of apple variety growing on that tree. Okay, you might be thinking I drank too much hard cider. Let me explain.

As I researched hard cider and apples, I learned something about apples that I hadn’t fully appreciated. The seeds in an apple won’t generally reproduce the apple that surrounds them. In other words, if you plant the seeds from a Red Delicious apple, the tree that grows won’t produce Red Delicious apples. If you are like me, that’s great because Red Delicious aren’t so delicious anymore.

However, let’s keep following this train of thought. If apples don’t reproduce the mother tree, has one Red Delicious tree been cranking out all those apples for all these years? No wonder the apples taste horrible, it must be worn out! No, wait, your neighbor has two Red Delicious trees. How can that be? There is one key word: grafting.

Apple trees don’t generally reproduce identical to the mother tree. When an apple blossom is pollinated, the seeds that form will combine elements of both parents. The mother tree wraps those unique seeds in a common protective cover, which is the apple. Its flesh comes from the mother and is why the mother tree produces apples that are all the same. However, inside those apples are seeds as diverse as people. So you could imagine the disappointment of finding the perfect apples for baking, eating, storing, or hard cider and only realizing years later after growing trees from those seeds that the apples on it are different.

Sprouted Apple Seeds
Sprouted Apple Seeds

That brings us back to that one key word: grafting. How do you reproduce that perfect baking, eating, storing, or hard cider apple? You have to take wood from the mother (scion) and graft it onto another tree (rootstock). The scion wood will latch into the rootstock, and the rootstock will use the scion wood to grow into a tree. The tree will ultimately flower and produce the same apple that the original mother tree produced. That perfect hard cider apple that you found is reproduced exactly. Now you can take more scion wood from this new tree and reproduce more and more trees. This is how our modern apple industry evolved. As apples were identified with positive traits, they were reproduced.

Maybe you realized this or maybe, like me, it wasn’t obvious to you at first. However, this got me thinking even more. As I was picking Albemarle Pippin apples from the trees in the orchard for my next hard cider recipe, an interesting thought occurred to me. One of the cider apples that Thomas Jefferson had in his orchard was the Albemarle Pippin. If an Albemarle Pippin apple can only be reproduced from a piece of scion wood off the original mother tree, the trees we were picking could trace their lineage all the way back to the original tree found in Newtown, New York in the late 1600’s or early 1700’s. In fact, that means the wood on that tree is the actual wood from the mother tree. It is the same wood as the trees growing in Thomas Jefferson’s orchard. All Albemarle Pippin apples growing in the world are grown on a tree that has been growing for over 300 years. It’s not a tree similar to the original or like the trees that Thomas Jefferson grew in his orchard. It is actually the same tree.

Albemarle Pippin Apple
Albemarle Pippin Apple: A favorite of Thomas Jefferson

The original tree grew from a seed. When someone realized it had some excellent characteristics for baking, eating, storing, and cider, they cut a piece of scion wood and grafted it to another rootstock. That piece grew into another tree but it’s still that piece of the original tree. Then someone cut a scion piece from that tree, grafted it to another rootstock and grew another tree. The process has repeated itself to produce every Albemarle Pippin tree in the world. Yet, every tree is really just the continuation of that original scion piece from the first Albemarle Pippin tree. When you think about how much those little pieces of scion wood have grown and keep growing over hundreds of years, I find it quite amazing.

For me, it brings a completely different perspective to the apples I’m eating. Next time you bite into that apple or take a sip of your favorite hard cider, consider the history of the apple that made it. Maybe, it truly is a brand new apple that you grew from a seed, but it’s probably much older than you realize.

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