Alaska Pioneer Fruit Growers Association

EARLY ALASKAN ORCHARD BEARS FRUIT TREE KNOWLEDGE

February 9, 1993

Thanks to Joe Orsi, one of our Southeast members, for the following–it’s a great article!

 

Dear Pam:

 

I enjoy reading the newsletter material and think you are doing a great job with it. In the last newsletter I really liked the piece by Bob Purvis on “Preparing Your Fruit Trees for Winter”, and the list of “Edible Tree Fruits Produced in Alaska” was especially appreciated. As far as the newsletter cost dilemma is concerned, I would be in favor of either raising dues to cover copying costs or making the newsletter a quarterly.

 

You were requesting additional information for your list of “Edible Tree Fruits Produced in Alaska”. Unfortunately, my small orchard here in Auke Bay, near Juneau, is only a couple of years old and, therefore, I do not have much to report.

 

However, I recently did some research on the early orchard records of the Sitka Experimental Station. In fact, last month I submitted a short article on the Station to our local paper through our Master Gardener chapter. The article has not been run yet, but I have enclosed a copy for your information. You are welcome to include any of this material in your Alaska edible tree fruit list or in the Alaska Pioneer Fruit Growers’ Newsletter. I think you will find that many varieties listed in the article would greatly expand your regional coverage of producing fruit tree varieties in Alaska. At the very least, you could note that Yellow Transparent is throughout Southeast, not just Southcentral. After all, the roots of Alaskan fruit trees appear to be here, in Southeast!

 

I would be interested to see the newsletter do a piece on the topic of fruit tree rootstocks for Alaskan conditions. Because I have only been a member of NAFEX for a year, maybe an article along these lines has already been done. If I had a few more years of experience, I would be glad to report something, but, as mentioned previously, I’m just getting started on my orchard. From what I’ve read and gathered from people in Southeast, M7, Antonovka, and MARK seem to be best bets for apples, and Mazzard for sour and sweet cherries. Any chance of a future article along these lines from a more experienced grower?*

 

Keep up the good work, and I hope you enjoy the Sitka Experimental Station article.

 

Sincerely, Joe Orsi

 

*(Editor’s note; Can someone grant Joe s request for an article on fruit tree rootstocks for Alaskan conditions? I know lot of us would benefit from this information. Please let me know if you are willing to take on this assignment—and thanks!)

 

EARLY ALASKAN ORCHARD BEARS FRUIT TREE KNOWLEDGE

 

By Joe Orsi

 

Most people would never guess that nearly a century ago there was an experimental fruit tree orchard in Alaska. In fact, the station was located here in Southeast, at Sitka, and operated from 1898-1931. Ironically, many leafy descendants of this very experimental station are still alive today in Juneau! I first heard of the experimental station years ago, but until recently knew little about the fruit trees grown there. As a budding fruit tree enthusiast, however, I was determined to learn all I could about this mysterious early orchard in Sitka. I was especially interested in knowing which varieties were tolerant of our cool, wet, maritime climate. As a result, I wound up at the Alaska State Historical Archives and began researching the annual orchard records of the station. A few days and $5.00 worth of photocopies later, I had satisfied my curiosity. I would like to share with you what I found out about Alaska’s first orchard.

 

The annual reports of the Sitka Experimental Station were one to several pages long and described the fruit tree varieties raised, as well as their growth performance and fruiting success. I soon realized that once trees were old enough to bear, harvest success varied considerably from year to year. The truth of the matter was that most varieties blossomed, but failed to set fruit. This was especially true when cool, wet weather occurred during the mid-June to early-July blossom period. Adverse weather during blossom time precluded insects from flying and pollinating flowers. Furthermore, cool, wet weather later in the season caused some fruit to crack or not fully ripen. These pioneer orchardists soon realized that southeast Alaska was not a pomologist’s paradise! Fruit production was at the mercy of weather and the right variety of fruit tree. In one stellar year when the weather was cooperative, top apple trees yielded 20-100 pounds of fruit per tree and individual trees of sour and sweet cherries produced two quarts.

 

The following paragraphs summarize the most successful varieties for each type of fruit tree grown at the Sitka Station. In addition, some problems encountered with fruit tree culture at the Station are mentioned.

 

Apples: Over 45 varieties of apple and crabapple trees were grown at the Station. Most trees were grafted on standard rootstocks, while others were grafted on native crabapple (Malus diversifolia) or dwarf rootstocks. Grafting is a technique involving the propagation of a cutting or “scion” of a parent tree onto the root system of another tree. Of the three rootstocks tried, it was difficult to evaluate which one was superior because of the different orchard plots and incomplete reporting of data. However, there was a great deal of attention paid to varieties. The first apple trees bore fruit at eight years of age-in mid-October of 1911. It was soon discovered that only the earliest varieties of apples, the “summer apples”, were successful. Fall and winter apples turned out to be poor choices. What was a summer apple in the Lower 48 was actually a fall apple in Southeast due to our cool, wet summers. It appeared that only a dozen varieties of apples and crabapples made it to fruition. At the top of the apple list was Yellow Transparent, followed by Liveland Raspberry, Keswick’s Codlln, Tetofsky, and Golden Sweet. Yellow Transparent trees from the Station were distributed throughout Southeast and were reported to have produced “good crops of decidedly palatable apples” in Haines, Juneau, and Wrangell. In addition to our native crab, the crabapples that produced were Hyslop, Whitney, Sylvan Sweet, and a couple of Siberian varieties (Transcendant and Malus baccata).

 

The Sitka Station was not without problems when it came to apple trees. Apple scab (a fungus) was prevalent in some years.* Trees were usually given applications of a lime-sulphur spray to combat the fungus. Of interest is that the two most successful varieties, Yellow Transparent and Liveland Raspberry, were found to be somewhat resistant to scab. Codling moth and their larvae were a problem in some years, as well as browsing deer, ravens, and human pilferage of fruits. Thus, the Sitka Station was not exactly a controlled setting.

 

For those of you willing to try a little pioneer apple growing, I have put together a list of summer apples, which includes about 50 additional varieties that were not grown at the Sitka Station. This summer apple list and sources for obtaining these trees are available at the Cooperative Extension Service Office, free of charge. [Editor’s note; Joe’s list is attached.]

 

Sour Cherries: Of all the fruit trees grown at the Station, sour or “pie” cherries produced the most reliably. One reason for this is that unlike most of the fruit trees tested, sour cherries are self-pollinating. A self-pollinating variety is one that does not need an additional variety blooming nearby to complete fertilization of the flower. Initially, there were only four varieties of sour cherries grown at the Station, in the fourth summer after planting in 1904, three of the four varieties set fruit. During subsequent years, fruit was normally set on some trees and matured in August. In many years, fruit cracked before ripening on account of rainy August weather. The most successful variety grown at the Station was Early Richmond. Other sour cherries that produced fruit were Montmorency, English Moreilo, Ostheimer, and Dyehouse. In some years, one-third of a season’s growth was killed during winter. Leaf spot was also reported to be a problem. One cherry tree trained against the south-facing wall of the Station outperformed the same variety in the open orchard. In this instance, the south-facing wall was probably warmer than the orchard site and enhanced ripening; it also may have provided more refuge for pollinating insects.

 

Sweet Cherries: Sweet cherries, which are not as cold-hardy as sour cherries, were grown only in the last 14 years of the Station’s operation. Before the first trials at the Station, it was mentioned that in private gardens around Sitka there were unknown varieties of sweet cherries that flowered regularly, but never set fruit. This is again probably due to the fact that most sweet cherries need an additional pollinator to complete fertilization. In total, there were about 10 varieties tested at the Station; Baldwin, Black Tartarian, Elton, Late Duke, Napoleon (Royal Ann), Wood, Wragg, Republican, Schmidt, and Spanish. Republican was the best of these varieties. However, sweet cherries were found to winter-kill completely in some years due to their lack of hardiness. But during the miraculous year of 1927, every single cherry tree at the Station bore fruit. If you’re a gambler, go with sweet cherries. Thanks to modern horticulture, there are two self-pollinating varieties of sweet cherries available that are worth a try in Southeast-Lapins and Stella. Unfortunately, I am unaware of a nursery source for the Republican sweet cherry.

 

Plums: Attempts to raise a few varieties of plums at the Station began in 1914. The four primary varieties grown were Bradshaw, Green Gage, Imperial Gage, and Prunus spinosa x Domestica. Again, it was noted that trees often flowered, but failed to set fruit. First fruition was finally realized in 1927, when all trees bore fruit. In some years, fruit did not ripen or was cracked on account of poor weather. Plums of the varieties tried did not appear too successful; however, Rich Poor, a local fruit tree grower, has indicated that the Mount Royal variety does well in Juneau.

 

Apricots, Peaches, Pears, and Nuts: One variety of apricot, the Early Golden, was grown late in the Station’s history, but only bloomed once and never set fruit.

 

The two varieties of peaches grown, Alexander and Triumph, were trained against the side of a building. In 1927, each peach tree bore about 18 fruits that were three inches in diameter. In other years, the peach trees bore small inferior fruits.

 

Three varieties of pears were grown at the Station: Koone, Pyrus sp. x Domestica, and Tyson. Only the hybrid set fruit, but it never fully ripened.

 

Finally, to wrap it up, one hazelnut tree of an unknown variety produced two nuts in 1927-not exactly enough to stuff the Thanksgiving turkey!

 

In summary, fruit trees can be grown in southeast Alaska, but fruit production is variable on-account of our cool, wet weather. The, early experiences of the orchardists at the Sitka Experimental Station clearly reveal that only select varieties will actually bear fruit in Southeast. However, there are newly developed varieties available today that are resistant to disease and hold promise for the future, if you are interested in planting a fruit tree here in Southeast, I recommend you call the Cooperative Extension Service (at 789-2666) for more information.

 

*(Editor’s note: The references in this article to fruit diseases are particularly interesting given Dana Olson’s comments at our February 18 meeting. Please see a brief summary of her comments below.)