May 14—After the dry, cold weather this spring, it has been a relief to see leaves and buds bursting in the suddenly warm weather. With opportunities to plant trees, pull invasives and participate in other stewardship activities, a recent highlight was the heirloom apple planting event at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in conjunction with Leelanau Conservation District.
Held on May 5, it was a picturesque morning drive up M-22 to attend the event at Dechow Farm in Port Oneida.
Dozens of volunteers gathered to help plant 32 apple trees in a new heirloom orchard, intended to preserve varieties that were once prevalent at the farms across the national lakeshore, but that are beginning to die out from old age. This has been an ongoing project, and the trees we planted were already about 10 years old. They are varieties that have been collected from the historic farms throughout the lakeshore, from North Manitou Island to DH Day Farm, and grafted years ago in a small nursery within the park.
Tom Adams, natural resource specialist at Leelanau Conservation District, suspects that about 30 of the heirloom varieties have been inventoried, identified (more or less) and grafted. Some have names like Ben Davis, Duchess, Dudley Penn, Bell Flower and of course, Northern Spy, but not all are so specific.
“We haven’t identified everything out there,” Adams said. But we laughed because [some of the varieties] look good and taste good, but we don’t know what they are.”
Specialists from various organizations including Michigan State University and Cornell have visited or been shipped specimens to help identify some of the apples, but Adams admitted that sometimes the new tag will end up with the simple identifier “Looks Good — Tastes Good” and the location of its parent tree. “The bottom line is that we want to save what’s there.”
In one instance, there were only two of the parent trees left living. The variety is called the Shiawassee Beauty, and since Adams grafted the one-inch scion a few years ago, one of the original trees has met its end. He was grateful that he had gone for a drive during the early days of the pandemic, located the big Shiawassee Beauty tree and even had a ladder in his car. He climbed near the top and got a few cuttings, only one inch long and narrower than a pencil, and successfully grafted them onto appropriate rootstocks. The young trees are thriving, but it will still be a while until they bear fruit.
With over 7,000 varieties of apples in the world, and a tiny fraction available in stores, it is important to protect these old varieties, many of which arrived in Michigan with European settlers in the 1800s. It also helps keep this piece of history alive in a special place like the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
This event was the culmination of years of research, inventorying, grafting and waiting. It carries on the vision and legacy of Neal Bullington, who worked in interpretation and still volunteers with the park, and is now being executed by Volunteer Coordinator Matt Mohrman, Historic Architect Kimberly Mann and of course, Tom Adams at Leelanau Conservation District. The project is ongoing and there will be future events, but only the trees can tell us when.
Samantha Wolfe is the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program technician for the Grand Traverse Conservation District. She lives in Beulah, where she is a member of 100+ Women Who Care, vice president of the Mills Community House Association and volunteers with North Sky Raptor Center. She currently is pursuing her master’s degree through Miami University’s Global Field Program.