The Quest for the Perfect Apple

Published in Times Colonist

Crisp, juicy and sweet – that’s how a good apple should taste. It’s why so many of the first immigrants brought cuttings of their favourite apple trees with them. Even today, the second generation goes back to the old country, takes a cutting and brings it back with any number of unsavory pests and diseases attached much to the displeasure of Agriculture Canada. But there are less risky ways to get grandmother’s favourites.

The B.C. Fruit Testers Association are a dedicated band of professionals and amateurs who love to pass on their specialised knowledge. They hold pruning demonstrations each spring, usually in February,  and fruit tasting festivals in the fall.

“We really want to train younger people to graft,” said president Frank Besier. “People live as long as fruit trees and some of our older members have varieties that no one else knows about and want to make sure they grow for future generations.”

Last fall, I accompanied the BCFTA  to Texada Island to visit several heritage orchards. It had been stormy but by the time our convoy got off the ferry from Powell River and reached the first orchard, the sun had come out and the sky was blue.

Grandfather Woodhead planted the orchard on his Crescent Bay farm around 1914. It provided food for the family and extra cash as he shipped apples to Woodwards in Vancouver.  However, by the time his granddaughter, Nora Hughes and her husband Keith, retired here fifteen years ago, the trees were badly neglected. Thick bush throttled all but the first row.

“Luckily, my brother who was a logger came in and carefully removed the maples and alder without damaging the fruit trees,” said Hughes. “Then gradually we pruned them and we still have a way to go with this but now they’re producing beautiful crops with no pesticides. I trade haircuts with a friend for her pruning expertise but we still have problems. Since the dumps have closed, the crows and ravens have inundated the orchards and then the yellow jackets move in.”

Dodging “land mines” left by the cows, we went from tree to tree sampling the fruit with the aid of president Frank Besier’s picker. As soon as the gnarled hands of Valle Lunzmann of Langley and Dick Eldridge of Victoria held a fruit, they could put a name to it. A generation below them, Derry Walsh of Langley demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of species, propagation methods and pests.

The apples in the orchard consisted of seven heritage varieties and seven unknowns. Transparent, Gravenstein, King, Red Delicious, Wealthy, Grimes Golden, and Duchess were all represented. Of the seven unknowns, only a Snow could be identified because the storm had blown all the fruit to the ground where the deer had  feasted  the evidence away. The visit was not a loss though as three unknown walnut trees were identified as a Butternut, a California and a Black.

Before the convoy moved on, Hughes and her niece Hilary, a fourth generation Woodhead, served coffee and home-made muffins while members perused a 1937 McFayden’s of Winnipeg catalogue featuring a photo of T.F. Ritchie of Ottawa’s Central Experimental farm.

“No man has made a greater contribution to Canadian agriculture,” said Dick Eldridge, one of the association’s gurus from Victoria.

On the road to Gillies Bay,  John Zaikow’s log cabin built in 1896 had a small orchard behind it planted before 1918. Its treasures include a Gravenstein, a Snow, a Winter Banana, a Northern Spy and some more unknowns. Again the fruit picker did its duty and members crunched thin slices as they tried to identify them.

“It’s a Winter Banana,” said one.

“No, a Winter Banana tastes like turnip. This is quite a nice apple,” said another. “It might be a Russet.”

Next stop was a newer orchard on Sanderson Road in Gillies Bay. Angie Pancich had done several successful grafts but one tree was a mystery to her. It was also a mystery to the experts who puzzled over it into the small hours. Next day, we found that the unidentified tree in my yard was the same kind and this time Eldridge put a name to it: Herring’s Pippin.

Discussion deepened over a picnic lunch at Shelter Point. The strong west wind drove stark lines of whitecaps onto the beach so the group huddled together in the meadow behind a protective midden.

Suitably refreshed, we made a quick stop at the south end of Gillies Bay to see a tree George Sulyma grew from seed thirty years ago.

“I planted it where the chicken coop used to be and named it after myself,” he said. “It keeps like a Mac, cooks up good and makes lovely juice and pies. I’ve grafted it on several trees on Vancouver Island, but now I’m too old to get up on the ladder and prune it properly.”

Although some of the group thought the Sulyma “tasted like a King,” they decided to send it to Summerland for identification.

Herb Staaf’s orchard in the centre of the island was the highlight of the tour. It was planted in 1911 by Herb’s grandfather whose apple-box making machine is still in working order though it was last used seriously in 1940.

“In those days, there were 160 trees and now there are 75,” said Staaf. “The peak year for production was 1925 when we sold apples to Powell River and Vancouver Island. The business stopped when Dad went to War. My grandfather was too old and labour was non-existent.”

Four deer ran out of the orchard as we approached. Once again the group picked apples and sliced them up for tasting. Staaf demonstrated his own apple picker – a digger which hoists him up to the right height.

“We don’t think your Wagner is a Wagner,” said Lunzmann.

“Well, that’s what my grandfather’s records show,” said Staaf and later, over tea and cookies,  brought out a handwritten ledger to prove it.

The last stop was an abandoned orchard on the high road back into Vananda. Here Eldridge pointed out a perfect example of anthracnose canker. Pancich, who had accompanied us from Gillies Bay, identified a tree that she wanted to graft “because the apples keep a long time. At Easter they are still full of juice.” Derry Walsh of Langley explained how to do it.

“Take it from the wood which grew this year,” she said. “Choose a finger thickness twig that is out in the sun and not straight up. The straight ones are too vegetative and would take a long time to grow. I like one growing at 45 degrees from the south side of the tree, then it will grow quickly. Do it in March and do two or three so that you get one that works,  and I think you should propagate Sulyma’s one in case he dies.” Before leaving, Walsh made sure the tree was marked with tape for easy identification later.

As the group waited for the ferry, they took a quick peak at local crafts in the Holtenwood Gallery and then had a smooth ride back to Powell River. In the evening, they enjoyed a wine tasting at Bill Price’s place and the following morning gathered there again for a well-attended public apple identification session. Several local people brought fruit to be identified including some Siberian crab apples, a Wealthy and my Herring’s Pippin. Derry Walsh set up a table of examples of fruit pests in Price’s well-manicured back yard orchard where he grows over 100 trees using the Cordon method and aided by hives of Blue Bees. Price is the BCFTA’s Regional Representative for the Powell River/Texada area.