By Tami Schlies
Our visit from Bernie Nikolai this summer was very enlightening on a lot of fronts. He is from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, which has weather most like our state, though a bit colder winters and hotter summers than Anchorage. Their average frost dates are around may 24th and September 15th. They only get about 18 inches of rain a year, mostly June through August. Moose, deer, dogs, mice, voles, and porcupines are main destroyers of trees in Edmonton, and growers also deal with regular sunscald. The only major difference is that they have great soil with very few rocks.
Bernie has about 200 apple trees, 30 pear trees, and a few cherry trees in his orchard. He is testing many new varieties out of Canada’s breeding program that have not yet been released for sale. Bernie and several other members of APFG are currently testing an apple variety called “Prairie Sun”, due to be released at the end of August, so keep your eye out for it. It is a “Goodland” cross that is supposed to be a good cooking apple and okay fresh. Also look for an apple with a name like “Saskatchewan Sweet Sunsation” to be released this year (the name is yet undecided). It produces yellow fruit with a bright red blush, and is supposed to be firm, rich, and tangy with excellent storability. Bernie says it has excellent taste, is extremely hardy, is excellent for cooking, and is ripe around Sept. 18 to Sept. 21 for him – a good 3 to 4 weeks after Parkland, so maybe too late for us. He says Clair Lammers is ripening his first few this year, so we hope to hear from him about ripening time in central Alaska.
We learned a lot about rootstocks during Bernie’s visit. Apparently, Siberia is the only place similar enough to our climate and Edmonton’s to get satisfactory rootstock varieties. Bernie asserts that the best rootstock for Edmonton is ranetka, which is a siberian crab cross (anything crossed with a siberian crab – Malus baccata – is a ranetka). In my experience this is the best rootstock for our climate as well. Straight Malus baccata rootstock has compatibility problems with some grafts, and other rootstocks I have tried die out completely or do not express very much vigor in our climate.
Ottawa 3 is a rootstock out of Canada that is hardy, but, according to Bernie, it “pouts” after being transplanted. It may take more than three years to recover after moving it. Some growers apparently plant the rootstocks in place at 6 inches tall and then graft on to them when they have grown a little. Other rootstocks which may be hardy have other factors that make them less desirable than ranetka. P-22 rootstock is very susceptible to fireblight. Bud 9 needs snow cover. Bud 490 and Bud 118 are clonal rootstocks with purple leaves that seem to be hardy so far, but are semi-dwarf, which can be detrimental in our cool, slow growing climate.
Bernie encouraged us to plant our own seeds and develop our own varieties that will be hardy up here, not only for rootstock, but for apple production. Take seeds from locally grown apples, rinse and dry them overnight, then plant them in the ground about 2 feet apart in September and wait. About half will be biannual or dwarfing or prone to fireblight etc., but 50% to 70 % will turn out to be a good apple – at least as good as the parent. Production only takes about 5 to 8 years, so if you have the time and the space, plant a few!
Pears are much more difficult to breed than apples to encourage both hardiness and quality. Right now in our climate we can pretty much only grow usurian pear varieties, which are not that great tasting. Bernie is working on getting some pear varieties out of Siberia that are supposedly as good as the pears sold in stores, and, of course, are hardy in our climate. With the current political situation in the former Soviet Union, however, tracking down these lesser known varieties is nearly impossible, let alone getting any out of the country. Clair Lammers offered lots of Siberian Pear seeds for planting this fall, which, if they are planted out in the field this fall, should be big enough for grafting in a couple of years, about the time the scionwood will hopefully be available. It would be a shame to graft hardy Russian pears on other pear rootstock, only to have the tree die because the roots weren’t hardy in a test winter. Siberian pear takes -50F with no damage, and seems fully compatible with the Russian varieties, as they have Siberian Pear in the ancestry, which gives them the hardiness. So unless we find a source for Siberian pear seedlings for grafting, we will need to grow our own.
Cherries are another area of breeding interest to Bernie, and he is also testing several varieties of self fertile sour cherries that are nearly as sweet as sweet cherries and can take temperatures down to 45 below zero. Most of these varieties are quite short, averaging less than 2.5 meters in height, compared to Evans cherry or Montmorency which can reach almost 4 meters. Brix content, of course, tells us how sweet the fruit is, and the sweetest of these (7-21-16.3) has been nicknamed “Sweetie Pie”. The largest (7-32-19.1) has been nicknamed “Big Momma”.
I have included some charts of these trial cherries. Fruit size can vary by 0.5 grams from year to year, so the charts are an average. (Montmorency is not hardy in Saskatoon, so the numbers here are based on literature and observations in Ontario and B.C.) Kevin Irvin and Clair Lammers are trying to get a large order of these cherries in from DNA Gardens this fall or spring, as they should be virus indexed. I will try to keep interested members posted.
Thanks again to Bernie for visiting us and sharing his knowledge.
New University of Saskatchewan Dwarf Sour Cherries being tested in 2003
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