Can we have a tree baby?
September 24, 2018 8:03 AM   Subscribe

We have a beloved tree in our backyard which may be sick or nearing the end of its natural lifespan. We'd like to take a berry and plant it in an open space in our yard where there used to be an apple tree about 15-20 years ago and grow a new tree. What I know about gardening you could fit in an acorn cap. How can we do this successfully?

We live in my wife's childhood home, which her parents bought new around 1980 when she was about 10 years old. In the backyard is a tree which was part of the original landscaping. My wife calls it a "crabtree", and I think it may be a Malus coronaria, or something similar. My wife thinks its losing its leaves far too early and that spotting on them is a sign of sickness. It is still very leafy and is producing berries.

Here are some pictures of the tree.

As I said, we'd like to plant one of its berries and grow a new tree where another tree used to stand. How should I best go about this? Should I pick a ripe berry now and just plant it in the ground and mark the area to avoid mowing it? Should I pick a berry now and wait until next spring to plant it? If so, how should I store the berry over winter? Should I plant it in a pot first? Does the fact that the tree may be sick matter? How can I determine if its sick or nearing the end of its lifespan? How can I learn how to go about this?

My wife has called a landscaping company to look at the tree and see what can be done for its health, but regardless we'd like to grow a new tree from it in the open area if we can.

Thanks for your help, Mefites!
posted by Reverend John to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'll leave the details to someone else, but I came to suggest that you should surely pick lots of berries, not just one. If your first tree doesn't take it will be good to have backups.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:06 AM on September 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

If it is a malus coronaria, it won't "grow true" from seed, but that may not bother you. If you want the new tree to grow true, then you could try a graft onto rootstock or even a softwood cutting if you have any softwood to cut. (That might mean waiting till next spring.)

The recommendation for growing from seed is cold stratification to break dormancy. That could mean planting in covered pots outdoors, or seeds bagged in compost in the fridge.

Hedge your bets. Plant some fruit in the ground, plant some seeds in pots then leave them outdoors and covered, try some indoor cold stratification.
posted by holgate at 8:30 AM on September 24, 2018 [7 favorites]

Yes, it will not breed true. This may be desirable. But if you want to have the same tree traits, a cloning technique that is better than grafting (easier, more reliable for novices) is air layering.

And yes, hedge your bets, collect lots of berries, make lots of air layers. Plant reproduction is based upon massive output and massive failure, you can’t trust one of anything.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:36 AM on September 24, 2018 [7 favorites]

Find a certified aborist on your area (I googled location in your profile plus aborist) and came up with a few.

They'll be able to guide you through the whole process. They will be able to at least properly identify the tree and it's specific needs as a sapling for you, in the area you have available.

Good luck!
posted by AlexiaSky at 8:36 AM on September 24, 2018 [6 favorites]

Apple trees, including crabapples, are usually grafted to rootstocks that are selected to provide certain desirable qualities, usually regional hardiness and dwarfing, i.e. the tree will grow smaller than if it grew on its own roots.
Also, apples don't grow true from seed, so if the goal is to replicate the tree you have, that won't work.
Plus, your tree is suffering from a fungal leaf disease. Which means it is susceptible to that disease. Assuming you were able to clone/graft/buy an exact replacement, it, too would be susceptible to that disease, so you'd still have the problem with the new tree.

Leaf fungal diseases are most easily handled by planting disease-resistant varieties, but in cases like this, there are three things you can do:

1. Open up the tree's canopy with judicious pruning. You want good air movement and sun to get into even the center of the canopy, so that the leaves dry faster after having been wetted. Wet promotes fungal growth.

2. Rake up and dispose of infected leaves and fruit. As they fall to the ground, get rid of them. Leaving them on the lawn increases the amount of fungal spores in the area that will be able to infect the tree the following season.

3. Spray the tree with a fungicide, following label directions. Fungicides don't harm bees. They also work much better as a preventative than as a curative, meaning you generally start a periodic spray program in the spring, repeating as needed (about every two weeks and after significant rain).

If you do some pruning and are consistent with getting rid of the leaves and fruit every fall, you will see the issue of leaf fungus diminish over time. Also, fungal diseases are much more common in rainy years, so in a year with a dry summer, you're much less likely to have an outbreak.

One of my sisters was in your position with a cherished specimen crabapple on her front lawn. She finally ran out of patience with the work needed to keep the leaf fungus problem under control, and opted to replace it with a newer, disease-resistant variety. In the long run, that's easier.
posted by Lunaloon at 9:00 AM on September 24, 2018 [8 favorites]

If it does die, save the trunk to make things out of! Crabapple wood is one of my absolute favourites for turning on the lathe.
posted by Poldo at 9:03 AM on September 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

Apples are also susceptible to fire blight which is a bacterial disease. Call first to see if they offer this service but you can probably pack a few leaves in a baggie and send them to your county extension office for a diagnosis and advice.
posted by Botanizer at 9:14 AM on September 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the advice so far, everyone. I do have a couple of follow up questions for some of these answers.

I'm not sure what not "growing true" means exactly. I did google it a bit, but it seems to mean just natural genetic mixing with whatever other tree provided the pollen. Should I be concerned that a tree I try to grow from a berry is radically different? As long as it grows into a tree which is roughly the same size and shape and flowers in the spring and is at least related to our tree (part of our reason for wanting to grow a tree from the berry of this one is simply sentimental), then we'll be happy. I'd assume (perhaps naively) that any tree of the same species would not be likely to be radically different.

Also, check on multiple growing attempts. When I say 'a' berry I don't mean that there will only be a single attempt from a single berry, just that in the end there will be a single tree grown from a berry. I guess I did make it sound like I only intended a single method in my original question. I'm just trying to find the 'best' method(s). I still don't know if I should be planting berries in the new location now, or in pots now, or waiting for them to ripen more (or if I've missed my window of opportunity this year). If I planted multiple berries in the new location with the intent of culling all but the 'best' one eventually, how far apart should I space them?

When I do have several potential trees, how do I determine which might be 'best'? Will I be able to determine after just a few years growth which one will be most like the original? What will I be looking for to know whether the new tree will not be radically different from the original when it reaches maturity?

Also, I'm sure at some point we'll talk to an arborist or other expert, but prior to talking to someone I want to have the best knowledge of our options and situation that I can, so I can talk intelligently with them, so right now I'm trying to figure out how to go about this as if I was going to do it myself. Any recommendations for resources where I can learn about planning to do this would be appreciated!
posted by Reverend John at 10:51 AM on September 24, 2018

I'd assume (perhaps naively) that any tree of the same species would not be likely to be radically different.

Apples and their kin are absolutely infamous for not being that way. This is a pretty good explanation.

In your situation, you have a little more flex because what you're looking for is general appearance, rather than something as specific as fruit flavor or something like that, but this variance is why just about all apple trees are propagated using used cloning techniques, even historical ones like grafting (put a branch of your desired apple tree onto the roots of another tree of a similar species, so that the above-ground stuff is your desired apple tree) or air layering (tie a bag around a branch and encourage it to grow roots, so that you can stick it in the ground).

On the other hand, there's a romance about "I played under this tree as a child, and now my children play under its child" that might work for your situation.
posted by joyceanmachine at 11:44 AM on September 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

Do you have an extension agency you could call for assistance? We have one in Michigan that will tell you what's wrong, how to fix it, and how to replant it, all for free!
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:47 AM on September 24, 2018

Rev. John, "growing true" means the offspring is exactly the same as the parent plant. In the case of apple trees (which includes flowering crabs), that does not happen. Every seed you plant from that tree will grow into a different tree. The reason: apples are not self-fruitful,
they require pollen from a different apple variety in order to set fruit. That means each seed from that union will grow into a tree with a different mixture of characteristics from both trees. IOW, offspring variety in apples works like it does with humans. Your kids are not exactly like you, and they're not exactly like each other, either.

As I'd mentioned, odds are your tree has been grafted onto the roots of another apple variety. Those roots affect the growth of the tree, and are usually selected to make the tree grow smaller/shorter than it would if it was growing on its own roots. Since your seedlings will be growing on their own roots, you might end up surprised by the size of those trees in adulthood.

What you propose to do is what tree breeders do: grow from seed and evaluate all of the seedlings as they mature against a checklist of desired qualities. You get to choose what's important to you, but the usual characteristics selected for are height, spread, amount of bloom, size/color of fruit, disease resistance, winter hardiness. All but the first two on that list can be evaluated when the trees are still fairly young, but of course they'll need to approach maturity (7-10 years) before you will have a reasonably good idea of how tall and wide they'll eventually become.

There is another option you could consider: plant a new, disease-resistant crabapple in your yard, then graft a piece of your existing crabapple tree onto it. That will grow into a branch that will have all the characteristics of the original tree (because it is part of the original tree), but that is growing on your new tree. If you buy a crabapple tree whose blossoms are a different color than those on your current tree, grafting a piece of the old tree onto the new will mean you'll have branch that blooms in a different color from the rest of the tree. It's not terribly difficult to do, and you get results much faster than growing a tree from seed.

PennState extension has an excellent online guide to propagating fruit trees via grafting, budding, and growing from seed.
posted by Lunaloon at 12:05 PM on September 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

For the record, plenty of plants breed fairly true even when sexually reproducing with other individuals.
Clones will always be the same as the parents, sexually produced offspring may or may not.

In some species, like apples, you are almost guaranteed that sexually produced offspring will NOT have the desirable characteristics of the parent. But in other species, sexually produced offspring are pretty similar. Sure, human children vary from their parents, but you are pretty sure that a human child won’t have horns or a tail. Not so with apples.

It depends on the clade, but breeding true is orthogonal to and independent of a plant’s ability to self fertilize, and plenty of obligate outcrossers (I.e. self incomptable) have traits that mostly breed true.

More info on the various breeding systems plants use, and what they entail.
posted by SaltySalticid at 12:26 PM on September 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

From the pictures, and from your statement that it was part of the "original landscaping," it's unlikely that the tree is Malus coronaria. M. coronaria is a wild species that is not typically grown in the landscape nursery trade.

More likely, it is a named variety of the common ornamental tree Flowering Crabapple, which is simply a hybridized form of Malus spp. There are hundreds of Flowering Crabapple varieties. Crabapples are susceptible to a variety of fungal diseases as others have mentioned above. In their favor, they are gorgeous landscape specimens and very easy to grow, transport, and transplant in the landscape nursery trade. Flowering Crabapples have a lifespan of about 40-55 years, so yours it nearing the end of its time - especially considering it was probably 8-12 years old already at planting in 1980.

While you could grow a new tree from the existing one, I suggest instead trying to match (or closely match) your existing tree's variety - and then buy a healthy, good-sized specimen from a local nursery and plant it. Mainly because of the tree's time to maturity - If you grow your own tree "from scratch", you and your wife will be well into senior citizenship by the time the "new" tree is large enough and strong enough to bloom. Flowering crabapple trees take between 8 to 15 years to attain a mature and salable size - "salable" being 1.5" to 3" trunk diameter and 7' - 12' in height. This is definitely an instance where a "money-for-time" trade is warranted - because you can get a young tree purchased, delivered, and planted in the $400 - $700 range. Most locally-owned landscape nurseries or garden centers that sell trees of this size offer delivery, and many will offer a planting service as well - call around.

To match your tree, inventory the flower color, flower style (specifically - single or double rows of petals), color of new leaves at emergence, leaf color through the summer, and color and size (diameter) or fruit. Using that information, you can narrow down your possible matches of Crabapple. One good reference is JF Schmidt's crabapple variety list. Again, your reputable local garden center can help you. Bring in your photos and your potential matches, and the garden center staff can help you find what varieties are currently available. If they don't have your tree in stock, ask if they can order it.
posted by Ardea alba at 12:51 PM on September 24, 2018 [6 favorites]

Yes! Try growing from seed...growing plants from seed (especially perennials like trees and shrubs) is something the world needs more of. Do it do it do it! You definitely want to plant as many seeds as possible. Some won't germinate at all, some will germinate late, some will produce small weak plants, and then there will be a few standout ones. Those are the ones you're interested in. I like Mark Shepards STUN (sheer, total, utter neglect) approach for starting trees from seed. You plant a huge amount of seed to increase likelihood of birthing a stellar tree. You're not interested in the ones that require lots of attention to keep them healthy and strong (or just alive), you want the one with the genetics that do well in your soil, your climate.

Choosing which one(s) to keep probably won't be a problem, you'll naturally gravitate to one or two that just "look" healthy, or that delight you for some reason. That seem happy even when you forget to water.

I would start them out in a pot, or planted closely together in the ground, but I'd get them in the ground in the spring. The root systems of tree are quite fascinating, and trees share nutrients and information with one another via the roots. I'd plant the young ones near the parent tree so their root systems can grow into contact with one another.
posted by hannahelastic at 12:32 AM on September 29, 2018

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