WHY I GROW APPLES FROM SEED
Search for growing apples from seed and you will see the same thing written at the beginning of just about every article. If you grow an apple seed it will make a tree that bears a different fruit than its parent. THAT’S OKAY. Diversity in nature is a wonderful thing. There are more shapes, tastes, and colors in the genetic pool of the malus (apple) genus than we can even dream of. There are apples with blue skin and red flesh, some that ripen in early July, some hang on the tree all winter tasting sweeter and sweeter, there are apples the size of a pea and others the size of a large potato. We can grow apples from seed and find wonderful trees.
Virtually all commercial apples are cloned trees (though this is beginning to change with the resurgence of hard cider). Most apple trees are grafted. The top of the tree starts as a cutting taken from a known variety. Amazingly, the roots are also clones. Almost all apple rootstocks are layered in giant stool beds in Oregon.
Some varieties of apple go back to the middle ages. One apple in my orchard is Calville blanc d’hiver which was named back in the 1500’s. The scion wood that I graft a stick of that tree has the same genetics as every other Calville blanc d’hiver. The DNA doesn’t change, but the world does. Diseases and insects evolve and adapt, but the tree stays the same where generations could be passing.
Cloned trees certainly have benefits, there are reasons that they are so popular.
Cloned trees are essential to efficiency. They allow growers to be able to harvest blocks of trees all at once instead of checking each tree for ripeness and then packing into different bins. Cloned trees are also predictable in areas of appearance, taste, as well as growth habits.
Another advantage of a cloned tree is that it is able to skip the juvenile phase. Seedling trees have to grow and mature before they will begin to flower (kind of like people). A tree that is grafted can skip this process. A cutting from an already mature tree grafted onto a rootstock can begin bearing almost immediately depending on the rootstock.
The average grafted apple will start bearing fruit in a few years, some quicker than that. I have seen scions blooming as they leaf out for the first time in the nursery row. Seedling apples can take 5-10 years to begin bearing fruit, though a few will do it sooner than that.
Lets not forget that every amazing apple variety in this world started out as a seed.
With all the great advantages that cloned apple trees have, seedlings have quite a few themselves. First of all, there is no graft union. The entire tree is itself, any sprout from the roots are true to the top. A tree girdled by rabbits in the winter does not need to be bridge grafted, it can just grow back.
Seedlings can live a very long time. Apple seedlings have a life expectancy well over 100 years. Compare that to a cultivated apple on a dwarfing rootstock that might only live for 15 years if it had a good life.
Lack of the graft union is essential to bigger size and longer life. Seedlings are also tougher. They can tolerate soils that would kill cultivated rootstocks. On my farm, wherever it is wet and muddy we get wild apples springing up.
It is often said that one in a thousand apple seeds will make a good apple. There is no way that can be true. I live in upstate NY. Wild apple trees are basically an invasive species here. I sample apples every where I go in the fall. I would say about one out of three tree is palatable. Maybe one in 20 tastes great. I just do not believe the notion that one in a thousand trees is good.
Also, virtually all apples can be processed into something edible and delicious. From dried fruit to applesauce to cider vinegar to hard cider to pork and venison, almost all apples are suitable in one of these categories. They will always be kid and wildlife magnets.
We don’t know what we can find if we plant apples from seed. It is not just the fruit, but also the form. I hope to one day discover a timber type apple and timber pear. The wood would be highly prized by woodworkers, the trees grow fast, and they would be an excellent soft fruit mast for wildlife.
Growing apples from seed is not hard. The first time I did it, I just bought an apple at the supermarket. I planted the seeds in some potting soil in a window and about a week later they sprouted.
Some apple seeds will sprout right away in warm soil, while others will require moist stratification. All that means is that they need to experience some form of winter before they will germinate. Fall planted seeds not eaten by mice work. I prefer to store seeds over the winter one of three ways. I pack them in damp sand in plastic bags in the fridge. I bury them in buckets of damp sand outside. I also like to harvest wild fruit late in the winter or early spring if possible and plant the seeds immediately.
I find that storing the seeds in the fruit is the best way to prevent them from sprouting too early which often happens with cleaned seed stratifying in the fridge. I collect fruit in the fall, let it rot over the winter in a rodent proof pit, and then plant the seeds in the spring.
Also, if you look around large apple trees, you can often find seedlings growing on their own. Dig them up before the lawnmower gets them if you can. They transplant easily.
There is a place in central Asia that is home to the largest gene pool of apples in the world. In the Tien Shen mountains of eastern Kazakhstan, on the border of western China, lies the world’s original apple forest. This is the origin of malus domestica.
It is here that 300 year old giants can be found bearing immaculate fruit. Seeds from these trees were brought out along the silk road to Europe. From there the apple has spread. But only a small portion of malus siversii’s genes were represented. The wild apple forests are large and remote. Most of what is there is unknown. Researchers are now taking field trips into these forests and collecting seeds and cuttings from amazing trees. Trees that are resistant to many of the diseases orchardists spray to control.
A request made to the Geneva Agricultural Experiment Station in NY will get you 100 free seeds sent from the Kazakhstan apples they planted. Here is the link to request those seeds https://www.ars.usda.gov/northeast-area/geneva-ny/plant-genetic-resources-research/docs/apple-grape-and-cherry-catalogs/
It’s a pretty great world. Apple trees bursting out of hedgerows with their blossoms in spring, bent to the ground with heavy fruit in the fall, the smell of cider in the barn. There is no tree like an apple, anyone who has climbed one can tell you that. What better way can we give back to this ultimate giving tree than to plant some seeds. Can you believe it, Jonny Appleseed was a real guy, Jonathan Chapman.
If you liked this article, check out my book Trees of Power.