Practical tips for backyard mad scientists
There are 7,500 varieties of apples growing around the world, but most of us eat only a select few. Wouldn’t it be nice to wander into our backyards and choose from dozens of different kinds of apples on a single tree? That’s just what Steven Edholm, an amateur apple breeder in Ukiah, California, does with his tree, which bears fruit from a selection of nearly 150 apple types. He calls his creation a “Frankentree,” and it fruits from mid-July through early February. In the summer, he can enjoy the sweet tang of a Cherry cox; in the winter, he crunches into a Whitwick Pippin, a rare British apple that fruits late in the season.
When Edholm first moved to his property and encountered the tree a decade ago, it was in a very poor state. The top had broken off in a storm, and as the root grew a new tree, it produced only sour green apples. “I had a whole tree of sour green apples,” he says, “that only the bears climbed up to get. In fact, my tree still has scars from bear claws. But I didn’t see that tree as worthless. I saw it as a huge opportunity to graft fruit.”
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]My tree still has scars from bear claws. I didn’t see that tree as worthless. I saw it as a huge opportunity.[/quote]
Edholm went to a local “scion exchange”—a kind of seed saver for fruit trees where local and nut enthusiasts, backyard orchardists, and nursery owners gather to discuss and exchange rootstocks from fruit trees and orchard plants. That first year, he grafted twenty varieties of apple onto his tree, and he’s gone on to add more new varieties ever since. “Last year, 90 varieties fruited,” he says. “It’s a super fun hobby and people who come see the tree just love it.”
There are several upsides to grafting multiple varieties of fruit onto one tree, says Edholm. Your fruiting season will stretch far longer, especially if you look for varieties that fruit at different times. You’ll have a cornucopia of flavors and tastes—you can grow cider, cooking, and dessert apples on a single tree. Pollination will be easier, since bees can just buzz from one type of blossom to another, rather than traveling among trees or orchards. If you make a mistake, Edholm says, it doesn’t really matter. Any graft you dislike can simply be cut off, and new varieties can be grafted on. Best of all, you can pluck the apple at the height of its flavor and freshness.
This tree had to be grafted into a large stub after is was snapped off by a bear. A year later, there's progress, but still an open wound. Image via skillcult.com
“My tree has spoiled me. My local food coop carries a pretty large array of locally grown apples in the fall,” says Edholm, “and it’s rare that I even finish one of them... Even the varieties I love are often picked too early or have been stored too long by the time I get them.”
It’s best to graft around March, says Edholm, who offers a grafting tutorial on his blog. He explains that apples are the easiest fruit to graft because there are literally thousands of varieties, and many are readily available. Pears and plums are also good choices for frankentrees. To find rootstocks, you can search for a local scion exchange, order from Edholm’s web store, or even ask a nursery to give you a cutting.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]We are losing diversity because our food system favors efficiency over the things that are important to foodies.[/quote]
The one downside to scion exchange sharing and grafting is spreading infection with the mosaic virus. “It won’t affect the fruit,” says Edholm, “but the leaves can become mottled and susceptible to a kind of sunburn. Once your frankentree has the virus, you really shouldn’t share your own cuttings, since you’ll spread it.” As with all trees, pruning is important, fostering proper growth and fruiting. Regular winter pruning is generally adequate—though suitability to the local climate is as important as variety. What will grow well in any particular climate varies greatly.
Edholm isn’t the only creator of a frankentree. In 2015, artist Sam Van Aken’s rendition of an imaginary frankentree called “Tree of Forty Fruit,” bearing forty different kinds of fruits from peaches to plums to cherries, went viral on the web. He then decided to try to craft a real frankentree, which is still in early development. Meanwhile, British horticulturist Paul Barnett has spent 24 years grafting hundreds of apple varieties, from Granny Smiths to Golden Delicious to rare varieties, all onto a single tree. And in New South Wales, Australia, Fruit Salad Tree Company offers up to six different types of fruit on the same tree, all with different ripening times. Oranges, apricots, peaches, apples, limes, plums, pomelos and more can grow on a single tree.
When asked what his favorite Frankentree apples are, Edholm says, “They’re all delicious, but I love The Katherine, bred by Albert Etter in northern California and named after his wife, and the Trailman Crab, which is a small but very sweet crabapple.” Preserving these diverse varities is important, he adds—and not only because they’re delicious. “We are losing diversity because our food system favors efficiency over the things that are important to foodies. Regardless of who is growing it, diversity ultimately affects all of us. Frankentrees simply can’t be beat for fruit diversity in a small space.”