A Day at the Orchard: Old Apple Trees Never Die

It’s a sad day when an apple or pear tree dies. I visited Angle Orchard just outside of Safford, Arizona, recently and was introduced to one of the matriarchs of the original orchard that was planted in 1922. She is an Arkansas Black apple tree. An heirloom apple variety of the south that dates back to the mid-1800s. This would be her last year to bear fruit. She was dying. The one relatively new branch growing from her gnarled old decaying trunk had recently broken. Here I was, looking at a tree that was almost 100 years old and still fighting to survive by a small piece of cambium layer attaching that one broken branch to that old trunk. I looked at her, snapped some photos to remember her and snipped a couple of her short 1-year growth shoots to try to use for bud wood. We both recognized that her time in the orchard was coming to an end. Or was it?

Later that night at dinner, I got a text from a friend about The Old Apple Tree in Vancouver, Washington. After 194 years, it finally died. The cambium layer that carries the water and minerals had been dwindling, which allowed a massive crack to form. This caused the trunk to hollow and ultimately, the upper branches on the weathered and aged trunk could no longer get the nutrients it needed and it died. I find the longevity of these trees to be amazing but there are other even older trees around.

CNN Photo: The Old Apple Tree in Vancouver, WA
CNN Photo: The Old Apple Tree in Vancouver, WA

The Endicott Pear tree in Sussex County, Massachusetts, is believed to be the oldest cultivated tree in North America. There is a debate about the exact date but even if you used the newest, 1649, it would still be over 370 years old. There are similar trees that are hundreds of years old in the United Kingdom and a I suspect across Europe. As a side note, the oldest living tree is either a cedar in Japan or the pinus longaeva, a type of bristle-coned pine, that lives in California. The cedar is said to be around 5,000 years old and the pinus longaeva 5,062. That dates back to before the pyramids in Egypt were built.

But for cultivated trees like our beloved apples and pears, do you really die? The Old Apple Tree in Vancouver died or maybe not. The matriarch Arkansas Black apple tree at Angle Orchard will be uprooted after its last fruit ripen. But, is it really dead? The Old Apple Tree in Vancouver has several root suckers that sprouted up and were allowed to grow once the extent of the tree’s condition was fully understood. One of these is going to be allowed to grow while the others are transplanted to another location. Aren’t the suckers just another branch on the same tree but lower down on the trunk? Sure, a part of the tree has died off but it’s just a part. The root system is still viable and producing new branches or trunks so should we really advertise that the 194 year-old tree died?

What about the nearly 200 pieces of cutting that were given out each year for the last 20 years? Won’t some of those cuttings end up being grafted to a tree and start growing? That is why the matriarch of the Arkansas Black tree at Angle Orchard is a matriarch, she provided the orchard with scion wood for many of the other Arkansas Black trees on the orchard. Those small pieces of wood have become large trees producing large amounts of apples and even more pieces of scion wood.

I will take my couple pieces of first-year growth off this old matriarch and pursue my first attempt at chip-bud grafting on some rootstock I have in the backyard. I’m hopeful that I can extend the life of this ancient and beautiful tree. But, even if I’m unsuccessful, I can take heart knowing that she still lives on in other trees in the orchard. Just like she is really a piece of wood from the original Arkansas Black tree that was discovered back in the mid-1800s. That tree is still alive in every Arkansas Black tree and ripening apple growing today.

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