Alaska Pioneer Fruit Growers Association

Apples in Alaska

February 9, 1996

 

CURTIS H. DEARBORN

Research Horticulturist

 

Apples are not native to Alaska oven though there are areas along the coast with milder weather conditions than those where apples are grown in other regions of the world. Oregon crabapple (Malus fusea) of southeastern Alaska is the only member of the Malus genus indigenous to Alaska.

 

Early settlers in Alaska were eager to have apples in their new environment and efforts were made at the Sitka Agricultural Experiment Station in 1902 and 1903 to grow and propagate apple varieties of that era. By 1906 about 30 varieties, constituting 2716 apple trees, had been distributed, to settlers to learn if they would be productive in their now locations. Crabapples were also studied and found to be hardy and productive. Inadequate transportation made it difficult to spread the material beyond communities accessible by water. As a result of this early work, a few fruits of Yellow Transparent, McIntosh, Jonathan, Northern Spy and other more recent varieties are grown in the Panhandle Region of Alaska, notably at Haines. Heavy rainfall and high humidity of this coastal region favor fungi that attack apple leaves and trunks so that fruit production there is not without its problems.

 

In the Auke Bay area, an old orchard of Yellow Transparent trees with trunks 6 to 10 inches in diameter was observed in the early “50’s” heavily laden with moss growth typical of that found on forest trees of that region.

 

At Hope, on the south shore of Turnagain Arm where the climate is tempered considerably by the water and winds of Cook Inlet, apples have been trailing for over 30 years. Anoka and Haralson were recognizable but these were destroyed by high tide-water following the 1964 earthquake.

 

Settlers on the Kenai Peninsula at Seward, Sterling, Kenai, Ninitchik, and Homer have attempted to grow apples. Trees of Wealthy and Yellow Transparent fruited once in the Sterling area and were subsequently destroyed by moose browsing. Apple trees set in the other communities nave grown poorly. None have matured a crop of fruit and most trees have succumbed to unfavorable growing conditions including destruction by moose browsing, or girdling by mice and rabbits.

 

In the vicinity of 3rd Avenue and Christensen Drive in Anchorage, an apple and 2 crabapple trees have been growing and fruiting for over 30 years. The fruit spurs and the bark of the apple closely resemble that of Yellow Transparent, however, the fruits are not typical of this variety as it grows in other apple producing regions. The tree could be a seedling of Yellow transparent developed during the early Work at Sitka.

 

Further up Cook Inlet, at the Matanuska Research Center, testing of apple trees has been in progress since the early “20’s.” Apple trees have been set in other locations of Alaska, including the College Research Center, however, survival of the plantings and production of mature fruit have been rare. An extensive planting at the Matanuska Research Center in the early “30’s” was doomed to failure at setting because the root systems had become very dry during the long period in transit from nurseries in the lower latitudes.

 

In 1949, 39 named and numbered varieties of apples were set at the Matanuska Research Center in 5-tree plots to determine their response to this environment. Tops of about 25 percent were still alive and showing weak growth characteristics in June of 1952. Not one group showed vigorous growth among the groups of 5 trees set of cacti variety. It was not apparent why the apples had died or declined in vigor, so cultural practices that might influence tree survival were tested. The first method was to provide good soil drainage. Trees were set over an area of well-drained soil, where drainage was assured by excavating to a depth of 2-1/2 feet, filling with a foot of small stones, covering with top soil, and setting the trees conventionally in these prepared holes.

 

The second method was to evaluate tree response to exposure in the open versus against a solid fence of inch boards nailed to a height of 6 feet on wood fence posts. Four posts were set at the corners of a 12’ ´ 12’ soil plot oriented so that the cast and west board walls ran parallel to magnetic north, Apple trees were set inside the square against each wall and outside the square against each wall giving all possible directions of exposures to, and protections from, the elements. The third method was to set trees into a Sleep soil bank and mound soil over the excavated area, leaving their trunks protruding and in a horizontal position. Envelopes of 1/4 inch mesh hardware cloth were used to protect the tops from rodents. The varieties Red Duchess and Yellow Transparent were used for these 3 studies.

 

These newly set trees grew normally in 1952, their first season. Buds broke irregularly in the spring of 1953 and all trees of both varieties were dead by mid-August. The answer to over-wintering apple trees had not been found through employing these protective practices. Twelve other new varieties were also set in 1952 in the conventional manner. Their growth was very disappointing in 1953 and all were dead at the close of the 1954 growing season.

 

With the passing of time, it has been observed that rootstocks of some trees, whose tops had winterkilled in earlier years, had regenerated a new top. When this material was traced to its origin, it was learned that the rootstocks in use by the propagators were from hardy stocks such as Columbia crabapple, or ornamental types, M. baccata and M. Sieboldii.

 

In 1960, the major emphasis was changed from testing the survival of nursery “whips of commercial apple varieties to grafting scionwood onto sprouts of surviving rootstocks. Although it was recognized that USDA plant exploration excursions to other countries had brought new apples to the Plant Introduction Station at Glen Dale, Maryland, use of this new -wood in Alaska was limited by a lack of trees in which grafts could be set. Each year the list of available accessions from Glen Dale was scanned for possible new varieties that might be expected to survive in the Cook Inlet environment. Since 1960, wood of 8 apples from Glen Dale has been grafted to available rootstocks. A few grew normally and developed a shoot 6 to 24 inches long.

 

Only a few scions have remained on the rootstocks long enough to produce fruit. Some winterkilled in the winter following setting, several succumbed during the second winter, arid some were broken at the graft union by wind or carelessness in culture.

 

Three varieties with quite acceptable fruits are among the survivors that fruited for the first time in 1970. Chinese Golden Early (Figure 1). a yellow apple type, was grafted 25 May 1967 to M. baccata and it made a shoot 24 inches long during that growing season. In 1970 the tree was 7 feet tall and produced a profusion of large white flowers and 37 good fruits.

 

Yephorys Chernogous scionwood was grafted 3 June 1966 to M. baccata. It made excellent growth and form each year. Over 50 fruits set in 1970 from a profusion of light pink flowers. The fruits developed a dull red cheek and were of fair size as shown in Figure 2. The flavor and aroma resembled those of Gravenstein.

 

Laxton’s Early Crimson was grafted 3 June 1966 to M. Sieboldii. Its first pink flowers were sparse and only 4 fruits developed. Three of these were damaged by magpies as the fruits began to color. The fruits were somewhat elongated, medium in size, and splashed with crimson on the side exposed to the sun. The flesh was white, crisp, juicy and had a pleasant flavor.

 

Each of these apples, new to Alaska, adds a new dimension to apple production in the Cook Inlet region where recognized varieties of apples are scarce. Several seasons of culture and fruiting will be required to learn if these varieties can survive in this climate following a season of fruiting. It is believed that they possess the necessary resistance to cold to survive, as the budwood came from the cold regions of fruit production in the USSR. Fungicidal and insecticidal treatments have not been needed regularly thus far in the culture of apples. Occasionally, aphids on terminal shoots were numerous enough to warrant using a malatbion spray several times in a season.

 

One of the limitations to expanding these or any other apples or crabapples in Alaska has been the scarcity of stocks on which new varieties can be budded or grafted. Oregon crabapple of southeastern Alaska was used at Sitka in early propagation work but was not a very satisfactory rootstock because of its prostrate habit of growth and small stem. When this crabapple is grown as far north as the Matanuska Valley its stems are even smaller and it assumes a thick shrub form. Mountain-Ash has been used as a rootstock for apple and this plant is native to the Cook Inlet region. Even so, the Mountain-Ash is a slow-growing, small-stemmed tree with a rather weak root system. Bearing apple trees in Alaska need a rootstock with sufficient stem to support a rapidly growing trunk above the graft unless provided with support. Mountain-Ash is believed to lack an adequately vigorous root system to nourish a good crop of fruit. Native plant materials suitable for apple rootstocks apparently are lacking in this region.

 

If the trees at Matanuska continue to grow as they have in the last 4 years, budwood soon will be available for more extensive trials. Persons with hardy rootstock material soon may have the opportunity to graft or bud some of these new varieties into their trees. Another alternative is to contract with a nurseryman to bud a few Columbia or ornamental apple rootstocks with one of these new varieties.

 

There are still many varieties of apples in other regions and at Glen Dole, Maryland that have not been tried in Alaska. It seems likely that even better apple varieties are available for Alaska. The small investment made so far has demonstrated clearly that good eating apples can be grown in some favorable locations in Alaska. Additional financial support will be necessary if the remaining untested apple stocks in other regions are to be evaluated systematically in Alaska.