Seeds and Scions: How Apple Varieties Originate and Perpetuate – Vol. 1, No. 5

• Apple Seeds Fall Far From the Tree
• A Twig in Time Saves Mine

With grafting, a single apple tree may grow more than one variety.

At first blush it seems too fantastic to be real – that every apple seed is unique and will grow up to produce a different apple than its source tree. As with human reproduction, the daughter tree may have some characteristics of the parent, but maybe not the characteristics that are most favored. If this is true, how is it that hundreds of orchards can all grow the same apple variety? The answer is something called asexual reproduction. To avoid the natural genetic variability, continued propagation of a variety is achieved by grafting either buds or twigs onto a compatible rootstock. Curiously, an apple tree may have multiple different varieties grafted to it, as the picture here shows.

Tom Burford is a 7th generation orchardist from Amherst County, Virginia.

Grafting is a fundamental skill that was known to early farmers. According to apple expert Tom Burford, grafting has been known for at least three thousand years. But grafting faced extinction in the 1950’s. After WWII, mass migration of people from the farmlands to the cities meant that children were no longer taught this once essential skill. Burford himself received his first grafting knife at the age of six, and prior to that young age was charged with picking good seeds out of the pomace leftover from pressing cider.

Grafting captures the best traits of the rootstock and the scion wood. For instance, the rootstock can control whether the tree is full-sized, semi-dwarf, or dwarf. It brings with it certain hardiness, disease resistance, soil preferences, and the like. The scions, however, control the apple variety, ripening season, and pollination characteristics. Some apple varieties require pollinating from another variety, while others can self-pollinate.

And what about those seeds that the child Burford collected? Those were used to grow new rootstock for later grafting.

Modern orchardists may use a scion or a bud to accomplish grafting. With scion wood, representative twigs are harvested during the dormant season, kept cool and damp until spring, then grafted on in the spring. With bud grafting, autumn buds are harvested and then grafted onto the limbs or rootstock prior to annual dormancy. According to Burford, grafting almost always will succeed as long as sound contact is created between the thin vascular cambium layer of grafted tissues and the graft is kept from drying out. The images below originate from the Cider Museum Hereford, in the heart of England’s cider region.

A sharp knife and manual dexterity are required for grafting. Image from the Cider Museum Hereford.

To learn more about apple grafting and heirloom apples, try the following links:
• Lucy Cook’s All About Apples featuring Tom Burford and apple-cheese pairings
• The Cider Museum Hereford
Tom the Apple Man, another English site
The Willow House Chronicles
The Howling Duck Ranch

Enjoy! TPJ

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