Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Apple seeds

I want to grow a mess of apple seedlings next year.  My primary goal is to produce some rootstock for grafting.

Most commercially produced apple rootstock are from random apple seeds.  In the United States, random translates into Red Delicious.

Red Delicious seeds do not produce bad rootstock.  They tend to be fairly resistant to fire blight and fairly well anchored.  In general, they lack winter hardiness in the coldest regions and they are vulnerable to wet feet.

Dwarf rootstock

All commercial apple orchards are now planted on dwarf and semi-dwarf rootstock.  The time value of money requires that revenue be generated as soon as possible to start servicing the debt.  That debt can run from $60k to $100k per acre.  Just to provide a frame of reference, a standard high school football field is about 1.3 acres.

Much research was done on sources for seedling rootstocks prior to the 1940s and the "modern" emphasis on dwarfing rootstocks.

Of the common varieties, McIntosh was found to have the best anchorage (although more vulnerable to wet feet than Delicious).

A minor variety called Mercer was touted by some as a good parent.  One shortcoming of the older research is that the researchers did not always tell the reader what their selection criteria were.  All I can tel you is that some writers were fond of Sweet Bough X Mercer but I cannot tell you why they thought this was a good set of parents.

Hardy crabapples from the Malus baccata, Malus X robusta and Malus prunifolia cluster of species were often used in the most extreme climates....like Saskatchewan and the Dakotas, Russia and China.  Growers in these regions also like varieties with these species in their pedigrees:  Kerr, Dolgo, Columbia, Robin, Bedford, Ranekta and so on.

Incidentally, some researchers (like Forsline) are dubious about Malus prunifolia being a valid species. They look at the variation within the "species" and think it looks like a pile of the misfit toys got swept into...much like you would expect to see in a flock of bastard children from M. baccata and M. domestica.

There are a few niche sources of apple seeds.  For example, Lawyer Nursery lists "Columbia crab"seeds in their seed catalog.  Columbia crab is one of those Alaska/Sasketchewan capable varieties.  They also list M. baccata and M. prunifolia seeds.


Liberty fruit as photographed September 1, 2015 in Eaton Rapids, Michigan.  As always, you can click on the pictures to embiggen.

Seeds from Liberty.  Extracted September 1, 2015.  Not quite ripe.
The closest I can get to McIntosh is Liberty, a disease resistant apple released by Cornell University in 1974.  It also has Wealthy in its background.  It is reported cold hardy to -30F.  I really like Liberty.   It is not perfect but it does many, many things very well.

Ben Trio.  These fruit are about the size of golf balls.  Photo taken September 1, 2015.
Based on their color, these seeds are much more mature than the Liberty.  There is a modest correlation between early maturity and increased winter hardiness.  These seeds likely had Liberty as the pollen parent as this branch was grafted into a tree of Liberty and both varieties flower at the same time.
The closest I can get to Mercer is an apple called Ben Trio that was selected in South Dakota by Niels Hansen in 1938. Mercer is listed as one of its parents. Professor Hansen released many apples with the last name "Trio" as he claimed those selections had genetics from three sources: domestic apples, native crabapples and Siberian crabapple species.  Modern researchers now take many of Professor Hansen's claims with a grain of salt.

Malus x robusta.  Fruit the size of marbles.  Literally, many thousands of fruit on this tree. The branches are cracking.  Based on the color of the fruit you would not expect the seeds to be mature.  Their is a limb of Liberty grafted into this tree but this selection blooms earlier than Liberty so I don't know how many of the seeds were actually pollinated by Liberty.
And you would be wrong.  Seeds extracted and picture taken September 1, 2015.

The best M x robusta I have is this one selected for having fruit that hangs on all winter long.  One potential issue with crabapples is that they are often sensitivity to apple viruses.  Modern rootstock breeders now believe that many cases of reported "incompatibility" were actually due to viruses in the scion wood killing the rootstock.  The baccata-robusta-prunifolia corner of appledom is not the most sensitive group of crabapples to viruses but cases of "incompatibility" have been recorded with Malus baccata.

Composite picture showing relative size and color of the seeds

Upper-left, Malus x robusta.  Upper-right, Ben Trio.  Lower-left, Liberty.  Obviously, bigger seeds can be expected to have greater seedling vigor when they first start growing.


  1. I'm given to understand that M.x robusta, aka M. microcarpa, is resistant - or, at least, less palatable to - voles; more so than are most seedling or clonal apple rootstocks.
    The toothy little rascals are a significant concern in some areas... like my poorly maintained orchard.

  2. There is a selection of a M. x sublobata named "Novole", that is, no vole. http://www.ars-grin.gov/cgi-bin/npgs/acc/display.pl?1024901

    M. x sublobata is presumably M. prunifolia x M. toringo, not species you will stumble across at Wally-world.

    Thanks for reading and, especially, thanks for commenting.

    1. Thanks for that... I've largely abandoned most of my apples for 'less-care' stuff like pears and persimmons... but my friend Donna, who's still locked in on apples, to some degree, may be interested in getting her mitts on some 'Novole', as the critters are a major hurdle for her in her spot.