Cloning the family tree

In the backyard of the house I grew up in, in Bellevue, Washington, there was a Transparent apple tree. Its fruits were small, dense, green and puckeringly tart — a few of these eaten off the tree (as we kids learned early) could make you do the “green apple quick step”. No one would mistake this for a “table apple”, but I think most folks would have considered it tart even for cooking. The house was built in the early 1950s, and back then it was fairly common to plant a Transparent for the sole purpose of pollinating other apple trees that yielded better tasting fruit but were finicky about their pollinators.

Whatever trees the Transparent was intended to service were gone by the time my folks bought the house in 1961, but the lone apple tree produced fruit every year, and with it my mom made hands down the best apple pie this side of Alpha Centauri, possibly in the whole universe. And applesauce.

No front teeth. Probably lost them having at one of those crisp Transparents. The tree is in the background.

I minus one front tooth. Probably lost it having at one of those crisp Transparents. The tree is in the background.

We picked bagfuls of apples and they just kept coming. I say “we”, but until I was old enough to work our rickety stepladder I think I may mean “Mom and Dad”. Shopping bags and porcelain basins full of apples sat in the laundry room for days waiting their turn, filling the back of the house with a musty, cidery aroma. We picked them so they wouldn’t fall and turn to mush on the ground, but some years there were so many that they rotted in the bags before Mom could get to them all.

Mom labored for days mashing the apples (I guess she boiled them first) through this big conical collander on legs using a big bat-like wooden pestle. Dad helped her with the peeling. They were a good team. She put just the right amounts of sugar and cinnamon in the applesauce, and the crust on her pies was flaky and light. (She used Crisco, it goes without saying. Her pie crust recipe, which was the combined wisdom of her own mother and an ancient lady we called Creedy, called for letting the dough “sleep”, and also not overhandling it.) We had fresh applesauce still warm from the pot and apple pies hot out of the oven in summer, and Mom would put enough of both in the big freezer that we’d still be living large in December.

But there came that time when Mom would intone that this was the last apple pie, or the last tub of applesauce. The bleak specter of months with neither pie nor sauce momentarily imprinted on our young minds the stark and bitter reality that, truly, we were creatures of earth and the bounty thereof must be renewed by the grace of God every year or we were hosed. Then we dug in. How we savored the last of that heavenly gift! We scraped our bowls and licked our plates.

A Yellow Transparent. It looks exactly like our apples, though we just called them Transparents. Image courtesy of Adams County Nursery (www.acnursery.com).

A Yellow Transparent. It looks exactly like our apples, though we just called them Transparents. Image courtesy of Adams County Nursery (www.acnursery.com).

When my parents decided to hang up their pistols and move to a smaller place in a 55+ community a few years ago, it occured to me that the family apple legacy was in jeopardy. We knew the buyers would raze the house and probably bulldoze the yard. There was no question of moving a half-century-old tree, but I didn’t want to lose the family apple tradition. You can still buy “Yellow Transparent” apple trees (not sure if that’s the same as we had) but since I knew someone who could talk me through it I decided to take cuttings or “scions” from the Transparent and try grafting them to some rootstock, thus preserving the actual flesh and bone, as it were, of the old tree.

The house sold in August and the deal would close in early October. Demolition would follow swiftly. It was the wrong time of year for grafting, but as Tintin would say, “there was nothing for it”. My friend told me to wait as long as I could to take the cuttings, and gave me careful instructions for their preservation.

The tree in its later life produced a veritable lumberyard of yard-long suckers every year, and we’d long since given up trying to keep them trimmed. On October 9 I took about fifty of these, then cut from those about fifty 8-inch twigs, each with three or four buds, wrapped them in moist paper towels in bundles of six or eight, and stored them in the refrigerator. Every six weeks I changed the paper towels to keep mold away. Before I changed the wraps a second time there was a mammoth new house standing where the old one had been, and the old tree was mulch somewhere. So my precious scions, chilling next to the dill relish, were all that was left.

In March of 2007 I took the scions to the Seattle Tree Fruit Society‘s annual fair, where experts grafted eight of them to some M27 full-dwarf rootstock I bought for that purpose. I also bought some M26 semi-dwarf and figured I would do those myself, which never happened (I tried one, but cut my finger badly in the process). I planted my scions, now tiny trees with roots and all,  in 10 gallon plastic pots with good fertilizer and waited.

M27 does not have strong roots, but it was recommended to me by someone at the fair as a good choice for this project. Looking back, I think the M27 I was sold was lousy rootstock. A few of the grafted scions put out a leaf or two when spring came, but I was heartbroken as one by one they all withered and died before midsummer.

All but one.

Future hope of pies in winter
Future hope of Presidents Day pies

This last survivor, the sole repository of so many wonderful gustatory memories, I have nursed for two years. It put up a few inches of wood in 2007, but we moved that year to this new house, where the sloping yard needed bulldozer work, which we didn’t get to until last September, so I babied my little Transparent for another summer, during which it shot up several feet in two upright branches.

I brought it into the garage several times during what turned out to be — and continues to be — the coldest, nastiest, meanest, ugliest and longest winter I have ever seen here, and I’ve seen all but two of the last 47.

The time has come to plant the tree in the yard, but I’ve been psyched out by the importance I have placed on this tree and the dread of putting it in the wrong place, or killing it in the transplanting. Too, Angela pointed out that one side doesn’t seem to be doing very well. And a tiny lower branch that was emerging earlier in the year has withered. I don’t know, maybe all this rain has just waterlogged the soil and the tree is drowning. I’ve fertilized it twice this year already.

When I get another dry weekend, it goes into the ground, hopefully not into its grave.

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