The stray, the unexpected variable
One apple tree remains under my care. It’s a Merton Beauty, bought as a tiny plant at a produce store in Sechelt. An organic gardener had grafted interesting varieties to dwarf rootstock and I chose one almost at random. Merton Beauty is a cross between Ellison’s Orange and Cox’s Orange Pippin. For years it sort of sat sullenly in a little circle of stones near the garden shed, caged in chicken wire. I’d water it, give it the occasional mulch of compost and drink of fish emulsion. A few frail blossoms, a inch or two of new growth. Then it produced some fruit and those apples were delicious. The information I’ve read about this variety stresses the aromatic flavour of the apples – their spicy taste, redolent of pears, cinnamon, aniseed. I can’t say I noticed those particular notes but the skins were pretty, russeted at the shoulders, and the flesh was crisp, with a true flavour of apple. Not the empty watery taste of many supermarket apples, sprayed, waxed, gassed, and stored for months.
When we rebuilt the vegetable garden after the septic field over which the garden was first made needed repairs, I replanted the Merton Beauty within the newly fenced area. I gave it lots of mushroom manure, bone meal, alfalfa pellets, and a long drink of liquid kelp to help it settle into its new home, a raised bed I called Apple Round.
We also have four crabapple trees up near the house. Two of them, growing in tandem, were given us twenty-five years or more ago by John’s mother, and each spring they bloom like debutantes, one in a pink gown and one in a white one. Working near them, we hear the bees. Most falls a bear comes for their scabby fruits which are the size of plums. And further down the driveway are two small crabapples, white-blossomed, with tiny apples the size of cranberries. Once upon a time I made jelly from a combination of the crabs but no one in our house really liked it and there are so many more rewarding preserves to make in fall so the bears are welcome, if they would only not break branches in their eagerness to gather fruit from the high limbs. And grouse too like to graze on the frost-bitten apples in late fall. More than once we’ve joked about a Thanksgiving dinner of apple-fed grouse but neither of us has the heart (or gun) to make this happen.
So one eating apple and its array of pollinators. And now the stray. Just beyond the sliding doors that lead from our kitchen to the sundeck, coming up from rocky ground, is a small tree that has revealed itself to be an apple. Not a Pacific crabapple – our native Malus (or sometimes Pyrus) fusca — which is what I thought it was when I finally recognized its leaves and bark. I left it to grow up beyond the pink rambling rose tangled among the deck railings so we could enjoy its blossoms in spring. Last year it had fruit, and they weren’t crabs but fairly large green apples: there were four of them and when it seemed they might be ripe, when they came easily off the branch when twisted a little, I picked one to try it. Not delicious, not even remotely. I think now of Euclid: “The whole is greater than the part.” A tree’s beauty is more than the taste of its fruit. But the question of course is how the tree got there. I know that apples don’t come true from seed. Blossom from a Merton Beauty, say, is pollinated by an insect bearing reciprocal pollen from another apple – here, it would be a crabapple – and although the resulting apples would be true to their tree, their seeds would be the children of the Merton Beauty and the crabapple. One in ten thousand of those seeds might produce something worth eating. Who are the parents of this stray apple tree? It started growing before the Merton Beauty began its small production of fruit. Did this tree sprout from a seed spit over the side of the deck or excreted by birds or even seeds from the compost into which I regularly deposited cores and peelings from apples given us by friends in autumn? Belle of Boskoops from Joe and Solveigh for instance which make delectable fall desserts and cook up into beautiful chutney. Or else a seed from the few rotten apples from the bottom of a box bought from the Hilltop Farm in Spences Bridge, their flavour so intense you could taste dry air, the Thompson River, the minerals drawn up from the soil, faintly redolent of Artemesia frigida. This stray is all the more wonderful for its mysterious provenance, its unknown parents, and its uncertain future, for it grows out of a rock cleft, on a dry western slope. I won’t dig it up since I have no doubt its roots are anchored in that rock but I will try to remember to water it occasionally and maybe throw a shovel of manure its way this spring.