As gardeners search seed catalogs for this years’ planting planning while the snow piles up outside the windows, orchardists make lists of varieties they’d like to graft. While tree catalogs are fun, most of them offer a very limited number of varieties. For example, there are something on the order of 7,000 named varieties of apples. The average fruit tree nursery catalog might have 20 or 30.
Many fruits, apples included, don’t grow true from seed. They are “cloned” by the process of grafting. A small piece of live wood from the desired variety with some dormant buds is coaxed into growing into and becoming a part of a rooted seedling. The resulting new tree will bear fruit that is from that small piece of wood. That means that acquiring a rare or heritage variety means finding someone who can share with you a small piece of that live wood to graft.
Grafting, then, is how most homestead and hobby orchardists add more unusual varieties to their collections. But how and where do you find all these wonderful fruits? If you’ve added grafting to your skillset — and it’s easy to learn — then the next step is to find a good source for scion wood.
Scion Wood Standards
Scion wood usually comes as small, short sticks of wood with multiple buds. Good quality scion wood is around 1/4″ in diameter, with multiple nice fat buds, well-spaced down the length. And a good provider of scion will tell you in advance what to expect.
Particularly rare varieties are sometimes available only as shorter, more slender scions. They’re harder, but not impossible to graft. Try to stick to the larger pieces while you’re still learning. Or hedge your bets and graft several small scions, if that’s all you can get.
There are a number of small businesses that sell scion wood. While you can get your scion from anywhere in the country, start by looking for orchards near you. Not every variety does well in all conditions. Fruits that already perform well in an environment similar to yours are usually the best bet.
But the real treasures in heritage fruit varieties are often found in the world of the fruit nerd. By which I mean, the network of nonprofits, independent growers, and groups of enthusiasts. Let’s talk about some of them.
The Temperate Orchard Conservancy in Malalla, Ore., is working to conserve the collection of Nick Bonter, who spent a lifetime building his orchard of heritage apples. The TOC sells scion wood for a brief period every winter. They have one of the largest lists of varieties of apples you’ll find. But, no descriptions. So you have to either know what you want pretty precisely or be willing to do some research. I’ve gotten scion from them before, and it’s always been excellent quality, with enough to graft two to three trees from each stick.
The USDA also maintains multiple collections of fruit trees. Germplasm (scion wood, cuttings, pollen, etc.) can be requested from their holdings. These are meant for research purposes, although it could be argued that preservation is an effective part of research.
If you choose to request scion wood from the USDA, keep a few things in mind. First, be patient. The researchers who maintain these collections are doing a huge job with meager resources.
Second, your request may not be possible to fulfill. From time to time, one of the collections has struggled with fire blight or other diseases. Naturally, they do not distribute potentially infected materials. It’s also typical for the collection to have a single tree of each variety. There might not be any appropriate scion wood to harvest in any given year.
Third, don’t abuse the privilege. It’s not a resource meant for helping establish commercial orchards. And, while the service is free (you do pay shipping), if they provide you with material strongly consider sending them a donation check. That will aid in the maintenance of those orchards for the future. It also makes the staff more willing to fill those requests, if they know their efforts are truly appreciated.
Using Social Media
As with anything else in this, our digital world, don’t discount the use of social media. One excellent source of rare fruit scion is the North American Scion Exchange Facebook group. Members trade varieties or offer them for sale to each other, in addition to exchanging information, grafting help, and general support. So, too, does the North American Fruit Explorers. Their journal, Pomona, is a fabulous resource and well worth the membership fee. Both groups include both enthusiastic amateurs and professional orchardists who sometimes maintain large private collections.
The Growing Fruit forum is another source to pay attention to. There is an active thread for scion searches and exchanges. The forum is also frequented by a large number of people who are well-versed in heirloom and antique fruit tree culture. It’s also an excellent place to get advice on what will grow best in your microclimate.
There are some basic courtesies to remember if you’re participating in an online scion exchange or group. Some folks will only offer scion to trade, while others are willing to sell some to you if you don’t have anything they want. And, again, remember that often the person offering a variety might only have a single tree. They may only be able to offer you a single stick, in order to also be able to share some with others. And if someone does offer you a bit of scion, it’s always polite to offer to pay postage, even if they don’t ask.
Local Groups and Exchanges
There are also local scion exchange meetings that happen at this time of year. Check to see if there is one near you. Both the Agrarian Sharing Network in Oregon and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association sponsor events that often include educational seminars in addition to exchange events. These local groups offer benefits not limited to scion exchange.
It’s not uncommon to get together for pruning workshops, tastings of varieties grown by other members, or even to educate the general public about the history and value of heirloom fruit. Even if you aren’t local to either group, it’s well worthwhile to follow them both. Webinars and other educational materials from both organizations are incredibly useful.
If you don’t have a group like this locally, consider starting one. You could use social media to set up your own event. Or, if there is a seed-saving exchange happening near you, ask the organizers if they would also permit space and advertising to add a scion exchange, as well. Heritage orchards that do grow commercially might also be willing to host an exchange. Don’t forget to check with your local county extension or conservation district office, too. They might be able to help you get the word out about your exchange.
Found in the Wild
The third way to find heirloom varieties is to actually go hunting for them. If you have a local orchard that has one or more older varieties that interest you, ask if you can come by and get some scion during the appropriate season. They might be willing to save you some when they prune their trees.
Keep your eyes peeled for old farmhouses with ancient trees in the yard. Don’t be afraid to knock on the door and ask about them. Use history as your guide. If there is an “Old Orchard Road” in town, try to figure out if the orchard in question is still around. The local history department at your library might be able to help. The Lost Apple Project has rediscovered a number of old varieties, inspiring similar efforts across the country.
Don’t forget about historic parks, either. The National Park Service preserves a number of historic orchards. If you speak with some of the volunteers who maintain them, there might be some opportunity to both obtain scion and help the Park source something special as well.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, for example, has an ongoing project attempting to save many of the rare and antique varieties that grow throughout the park. Thus far, over 400 new trees have been grafted to replant. Many of them are varieties with ties to the history of Michigan, like the Shiawasee Beauty – a variety I’m still in search of for my own home orchard.
There are so many varieties of heirloom fruit to choose from. Grafting your own antique trees means you’ll have a unique orchard and help preserve genetic diversity. Happy hunting!
Holly Stockley is a veterinarian and heritage-breed genetic biodiversity steward in Western Michigan, where she and her husband are restoring 10 acres of neglected land that includes a walnut plantation. She participates in the Lost Apple Project – Midwest and has started a small orchard of heritage apple varieties, teaching herself to graft. Find Holly at BrambleberryMeadow.com and listed to her Vintage Americana Podcast. Connect with her on Instagram @brambleberrymeadow and @vintageamericanapodcast.
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