Growing Apple Trees from Seed

If you’ve been to the nursery in the last couple of years, you know I have an apple tree obsession. I don’t know how to trace the beginnings of the obsession–it began in part when I read The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, about ten years ago. The section on apples was my favorite part of that book. He traced the origin of the apple back to Kazakhstan, and The Valley of the Apples.  Scientists believe that is where the apple originated.

Dr. Phillip Forsline was mentioned in The Botany of Desire because he had been going to Kazakstan for apple seeds since the 90s. He was worried about the lack of diversity in apple trees in the U.S. and wanted to introduce some genetic variability by bringing seeds from The Valley of the Apples, planting them, and hopefully finding apples with more disease resistance, drought tolerance, and other desirable traits.  I wrote to Dr. Forsline and he sent me seeds that he said came from some of the coldest, driest regions in Kazakhstan–seeds that would perhaps flourish in Colorado’s extremes of temperatures and our semi-arid climate.

I planted those seeds and they germinated! Apple seeds need to experience a period of cold stratification before they will germinate. They receive that naturally if it’s left up to nature, but I accomplished it by moistening the seeds and then storing them in the refrigerator in a baggie for two months.  From seed to fruit takes about 7-10 years, so it’s possible we’ll start to get fruit from some of those trees this year.

A few years ago a friend of mine was visiting from Nevada;  when we had apples for a snack, she found apple seeds sprouting in the core of her apple!  The apples, stored in the frig, had provided the same moist, cold conditions that the seeds need to germinate. Still, I’d never seen that happen before. The apples we were eating were Pink Lady (second only to Honeycrisp for flavor, imo!) and I planted the seeds that day.

One of my neighbors called last week to ask if she could plant Honeycrisp apple seeds and grow a Honecrisp apple tree. The answer to that is, sadly, no. Apple trees do not come true from seed, as a matter of fact, each seed in every apple is different from the other. Those seedlings shown above will not produce the same Pink Lady apple that I love. That means the only way for my neighbor to have a Honeycrisp apple is to graft a scion from a Honeycrisp tree to a root stock.  I hope to someday try that. I know how to do it…in theory….but I’ve never actually done it.  Meanwhile I’m having a great time growing apple trees that might someday produce tiny purple apples or big orange-colored apples or even a red and yellow, sweet and crisp apple to rival Honeycrisp.

I think growing apple trees also appealed to me because they are the most reliable fruit tree to grow in much of Colorado. All around Rye, from 6000′ elevation to over 8000,’ there are wild apple trees. Some are remnants from homesteads, planted ages ago, but some are trees that grew from seeds scattered by birds or mammals or humans. Within a mile of Perennial Favorites, I can walk to ten apple trees that grow by the roadside, or near Graneros Creek, or even on a south facing slope. They aren’t tended by anyone yet they produce fruit three or four years out of five.  Two years ago, in 2010, we had a great year for apple trees in our area.  Here’s a picture of an apple tree growing on the ridge.

That picture was taken in October and the leaves and grasses had already changed color. This particular wild apple has not been very productive…but it is very drought tolerant! It’s growing with mountain mahogany and sumac on a south-facing slope, and the only water it gets is from the sky.  I’ve noticed that all the apple trees around here can survive severe drought, although few grow in such an inhospitable location.


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