In praise of the apple seedling

One of our favourite books from Maine - the apple nerd state
One of our favourite books from Maine – the apple nerd state

If you’ve inherited a garden, or moved into a house with existing fruit trees, there’s a very good chance you won’t know what they are – because it’s a rare homeowner who keeps good enough records or labels to pass onto a new resident!

So, you’ll probably need to do some garden detective work to figure out what you’ve got.

One of the first things to look for, is whether a tree is a seedling, or a grafted tree. Not sure of the difference?

An 8 year old apple tree with an obvious graft union, but it's probably going to become less obvious with age
An 8 year old apple tree with an obvious graft union, but it’s probably going to become less obvious as the trunk thickens with age

Here’s a couple of tips that might help:

  • Look for a graft union, where the scion was grafted onto the rootstock. Any fruit tree you buy from a nursery will have been grafted (unless you’re buying rootstocks from a specialist rootstock nursery), but unfortunately the graft union may be hard to see in the adult tree. If you can see it (there’s a couple of examples in the photos above and below) – great! You know you’ve got a grafted tree, which means it’s a known variety, and then you can start trying to figure out which one. If you can’t see a graft union, that’s inconclusive evidence! It may be a seedling, or it may be a grafted tree where the union is no longer visible.
A mature tree in Tuscany with a very obvious graft union
A mature tree in Tuscany with a very obvious graft union
  • Another give-away is a tree having multiple trunks. Seedlings are often naturally multi-trunked, while grafted trees always have a single trunk. BUT, it’s very common (particularly if a tree hasn’t been well looked after) to see the original grafted trunk plus a number of suckers from below the graft union that have become extra trunks. One of the ways to spot this is to notice whether seasonal changes (blossom, or leaves changing colour in autumn, for example) look the same and happen at the same time on each trunk, and of course whether they all bear the same type of fruit (or any fruit at all).
A seedling apple tree with multiple trunks
A seedling apple tree with multiple trunks

Traditionally in Australia (and more generally in the orchard world), seedlings have been thought of only as a source of rootstocks for grafting known varieties onto.

Seedlings themselves have been considered at best worthless, and at worst pest trees that must be chopped down and eradicated.

We noticed a much different approach to seedling apple trees when we visited America (and particularly in Maine, which must be the apple-nerd capital of the world), where they are more likely to be appreciated for their own potential:

A seedling apple is like a musical improvisation In the world of music, one parent would be the original composition and the second would be the musician. When the musician sets aside the printed page and plays the tune extemporaneously, the result is something new….You may or may not recognise the tune. It may be pleasant to the ear, or it may be discordant. Musical improvisations may be endlessly fresh and inventive…(t)hey may also be stale, cliche and uninteresting. However, whether you like them or not…each will be new and unique.

Same with apples. Some seedlings will be stale and uninteresting, while others will be quite wonderful. Each is an improvisation.

John Bunker, Apples and the Art of Detection
Nan Cobbey's huge multi-trunked seedling apple tree; it might look like it's in Africa, but it's actually growing in Belfast, Maine. From "Apples and the Art of Detection", by John Bunker
Nan Cobbey’s huge multi-trunked seedling apple tree; it might look like it’s in Africa, but it’s actually growing in Belfast, Maine. From “Apples and the Art of Detection”, by John Bunker

So, if a seedling tree is potentially a wonderful fruit tree in its own right, why is it important to know whether your tree is a seedling or a grafted tree?

Because (as John points out), “some seedlings will be stale and uninteresting” – or in other words, completely useless, whereas grafted varieties have all been chosen because they’ve been proved to grow apples with desirable characteristics.

If you’re aiming for fruit self-sufficiency (and if you’ve got room for a few trees, why wouldn’t you be?) then each tree needs to pull its weight by growing the varieties and quantities of fruit you want.

So if you really want to achieve fruit self-sufficiency, you need to know what you’re starting with (as explained in Grow A Year’s Supply of Fruit).

Because there’s no room in a productive and thriving food production garden for “stale and uninteresting” fruit!

4 thoughts on “In praise of the apple seedling”

  1. Love your info…your comment… put sticky bands around your fruit trees?? what are they and where do I get them? What do I ask for? many thanks. Maureen

    1. Hi Maureen – you can either buy horticultural glue (various brands), or find a double-sided stick tape (e.g. Greenharvest sell a version) or improvise! If you use grease or something similar, just wrap a layer of clingwrap or something like that around the trunk of the tree first to make a barrier (and be aware that it might melt in really hot weather and need replacing).

  2. Seedling trees are a potential waste of space but who can resist trying the fruit just in case? As a cyclist who likes to roam along roadside and rail it’s amazing what can be found. Apricots in the middle of nowhere from a pip or two thrown potentially decades before. Apples in cooler climes. Pears are much harder to find with fruit. They seem to revert to wild prickly stock much more readily than apples, have a longer juvenile period and maybe lack a nearby pollinator. Plums, too, are worth checking, especially early in the season. Just by chance you may come across something really special. Like the large stripey red, juicy apple I found late one April, off a roadside but close enough to the farmer’s boundary fence that the local sheep were in waiting for the fruit to fall. Better than Delicious, and reminiscent of flavours that have vanished or been banished from commercial shelves.

    1. What a fantastic find Alex. If you were to get some wood from that tree you could graft it onto a tree closer to home, and have access to the apples all the time!

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