The curious things about apples is that if you eat a Fuji apple, and plant the seeds from that Fuji apple, you won’t necessarily get a Fuji apple when that tree begins to fruit. You may get something similar, or you may get something completely different. Sour. Mushy. Huge or tiny. It’s a total gamble when you plant an apple seed, you never know what you are going to get. The reason is that apples are “self-unfruitful which means their blossoms must be fertilized with the pollen of a separate variety in order to achieve good fruit set” according to Organic Gardening Magazine.
So, throughout the centuries, humans have learned that grafting is the best way to maintain an edible apple fruit, if you are lucky enough to have come across one. Grafting is the practice of taking a cutting of a branch from an apple tree that you like, and connecting it to a different rootstock to grow a new apple tree, identical to the one you took the cutting from. Grafting originated in China in about 2000 B.C, and in the ensuing 4,000 years, humans have managed to perfect it into a tricky but easily learnable art. Over a weekend workshop, I got the chance to hone in on this ancient practice and graft two of my own apple trees.
Basics of grafting:
The process is to take a rootstock that has been grown for a season or two, cut the stem slightly above the soil, then take a scion (a cutting, like a small branch, from a desired apple variety) of your choice, and, simply put, stick the two together. Just below the bark is the cambium, a very thin layer of living tissue in the tree. The goal is to match the cambium from the rootstock and the scion perfectly, so that they can grow together and become one tree. It’s a fascinating process.
The most amazing part of the workshop may have been the history lesson. There were sour apples from France for making hard cider, big cooking apples from England that keep their shape when baked, and each of these varieties has been kept for generations. Johnny Appleseed planted apple seed (hence the name) wherever he went, and those apples were used exclusively to make fermented cider, otherwise known as alcohol. Johnny Appleseed’s last living tree was saved around 1960 when someone took a cutting from it when it was over 100 years old, and I was able to graft a scion from that tree onto one of my rootstocks. I have no idea what the apple will turn out to be, but I couldn’t resist.
The most important thing I learned about grafting, don’t forget to label!
~ Josh Holleb, CERES Project Manager and Head Grower