The art and practice of apple tree grafting
In early winter of this year, shortly after the Buddha’s parinirvana ceremony, a special memorial service was convened in the Green Gulch garden to honor a few venerable fruit trees entering their early dotage. Covered with leathery lichen and scaly tufts of moss, these noble trees had ceased to bear fruit and were soon to be replaced. I imagined the warm purr of a chainsaw in their immediate future. Since I had planted most of these elders more than 30 years ago, I was now invited to celebrate their demise.
The formal tribute to the trees began by establishing a simple altar underneath our stately Roxbury Russet apple tree. An Italian tablecloth patterned with giant red apples woven into the fabric was spread out under the tree with a few stark branches of apple blossom and wild plum placed on the altar. I contributed a macabre candle to the ceremony, one molded in the image of an apple with a lively maggot emerging from its waxen core. The candle burned with eerie light in the winter orchard. Bells were rung, incense was lit, and the memorial service commenced.
We began by honoring the Roxbury Russet, an original cider apple from colonial Massachusetts, first planted in the early 1600s. This historic apple was always a good cropper at Green Gulch, heavy with large bronze-tinged fruit that was notably coarse and laced with a tart and lingering sweetness. In the early years of the orchard we pressed fizzy apple juice from Roxbury Russet and served apple crisp made from its fruit for our late autumn apple tastings. To my delight, Lauren, the current head gardener at Green Gulch, climbed up into the wide embrace of Roxbury Russet during the ceremony, leaning back with her eyes closed for the arboreal eulogy.
In solemn procession that day we visited each fruit tree destined to be removed from the garden. The last tree was an old Santa Rosa plum bred by the preeminent botanist Luther Burbank in 1906. I remember this tree in its fruitful youth, laden with oval, burgundy plums. The Santa Rosa flavor is legendary—fragrant, fine-textured, and saturated with the ichor of wine-dark plum nectar.
In spring this plum was the first fruit tree to flower in the garden, covered with bridal-white bloom. In the fifth year of growing plums at the local middle school I brought boughs of the flowering Santa Rosa to help pollinate the school’s garden trees. A seventh grader walked among the juvenile plums, touching each bare-limbed tree with branches of the Green Gulch Santa Rosa. That season there was a bumper harvest of new plums in the middle school garden.
Now in the bright heat of May, these fabled trees of Green Gulch are no more. They were removed soon after their ceremony of homage, and new saplings grow in their storied ground. However, when Lauren climbed into the billowing sail of the Roxbury Russet apple tree, she clipped a few strong top branches from the mast of the tree, scion wood for me to bench graft onto strong rootstock and grow a new Roxbury Russet.
On March 6 of this year I stood outside in soft spring rain with this apple plant material in hand, along with a sharp knife, grafting tape, and beeswax. I was accompanied by two adept grafting friends for horticultural support. Together we made a clean “whip and tongue” graft in which both the Roxbury Russet branch of scion wood and the apple rootstock that we had selected for strength and size control were cut diagonally and their dual surfaces notched with matching “tongues” so that the two plant parts would interlock and grow together as one.
The grafting of fruit trees is a practice rooted in antiquity, first recorded by Theophrastus, an early Greek philosopher and botanist writing not long after the time of the Buddha. The M7 rootstock that we chose for our modern whip and tongue graft can be traced back thousands of years to the Doucin Reinette apple of 17th-century France, and deeper still to the famed Paradise apple of ancient Persia growing in the garden where four rivers meet.
About a month ago the apple wood of our grafted Roxbury Russet merged with its Paradise rootstock and began to grow together as one plant. This new tree should be ready for the garden in a year or so. Although this apple tree carries its genetic code and ancestral bloodline in every cell of its being, its transmission is also original, outside of any scripture. Mind to mind, nature to true nature, Paradise apple to Roxbury Russet, the world is renewed.
Wendy Johnson is Tricycle’s longest-running columnist. She is the author of Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World.
Image: Mary Kocol/Gallerystock