Old Apple Tree heads for second century
Forester works to maintain link to region's history
By CHRISTY LOCHRIE
For the Capital Press
VANCOUVER, Wash. -- Eve would have trouble tempting Adam with this tree. The Old Apple Tree, with its hollowed out trunk, stake in its heart and branches that look more like outstretched, gonna-get-you scary than anything bearing temptation, is nothing if not a survivor.
And this spring work crews will toil with more grafts in an effort to help it survive longer still.
Considered a matriarch of the Pacific Northwest's apple industry, the geriatric tree is thought to have been planted from seed in 1826 on the outskirts of the Hudson's Bay Co.'s Fort Vancouver. That math, calculated from tree rings, pegs the tree at 185 years old.
The fort was known for its teeming gardens and fruit orchards, food grown to keep the fur traders fed since ships -- and its supplies -- could take months to reach the first British colonial outpost on the West Coast, situated inland on the Columbia River in what is now Vancouver, Wash.
But this tree sprouted and grew outside what Bob Cromwell, archeologist for Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, guesses was the first gated community in North America, with its stockade walls and gates that locked shut at night.
It was both a physical and socioeconomic barrier, with the genteel tucked away inside and the working class barred, especially after dark, Cromwell said.
Several versions exist for the origin of the trees that grew in the fort's orchards -- carried in a gentleman's vest pocket from England, forgotten until he reached the fort and then planted.
"For someone in the village to get access to an apple seed is a story," Cromwell said.
But someone did. The tree grew and, after the U.S. Army took over the fort in 1849, when the Old Apple Tree would have been 23 years old, it survived the methodical destruction of what had been the Hudson's Bay Co. and its agricultural interests, all symbolic of a contentious relationship with Great Britain at the time.
"But this lone tree out in the village area, probably because it was alone (and not associated with the Hudson's Bay Co.), it was saved," Cromwell said.
Since, the Old Apple Tree, the centerpiece of a park named after it and host to an October festival in its honor, has withstood the ravages of time, including a highway constructed just feet away, to become a living monument to the region's history.
Charles Ray, an urban forester for the city of Vancouver, works with a team of volunteers who care for the tree and donate their time and services.
"The tree's had a lot of setbacks," Ray said, pointing to pole driven through its trunk to reinforce it in the 1950s.
Lyle Feilmeier, of Collier Arbor Care in Vancouver, has looked after the tree for more than a decade, aerating its roots last year, removing dead wood and grafting wounds. The tree has shown remarkable resiliency, which, at times, has been its downfall, Feilmeier said.
It bounces back from setbacks so robustly that its growth exceeds its structural capacity. Which is why Feilmeier and his crew are working to graft wounds, a project that will continue this spring, so that structure can be reinforced and the tree can thrive again.
"With proper care, we can invigorate that tree to be just as vigorous as a new sapling," Feilmeier said.
Joe Beaudoin, a Vancouver orchardist, describes the tree as a cross between a Newtown Pippen and a Granny Smith apple, green and small, but nothing you'd want to eat out of hand on account of its tartness. But in a pie, that's another story.
"One of the best pies I've tasted in my life," Beaudoin said.
Modern apple trees, which are often grafted onto dwarf rootstock, have a shortened lifespan and bear fruit within a couple of years. The Old Apple Tree probably didn't fruit until it was 10 years old. Its canopy has reached 30 feet and, by some accounts, it may have another 100 years of life yet.
"The Old Apple Tree is a time capsule of what fruit trees looked like in the 19th Century," said Susan Dollin, historical landscape architect for the National Park Service.
About: Old Apple Tree
Occupation: Matriarch of the apple industry in the Pacific Northwest
Age: 185 years old
Hometown: Vancouver, Wash.