Endurance of old apple tree has experts stumped

JO MCKENZIE-MCLEAN
Last updated 05:00 06/06/2014

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An ancient apple tree firmly rooted in the corner of a Central Otago cemetery has horticulturists puzzled - and excited.

Horticulturist Wayne King was at Graveyard Gully in Alexandra last week taking grafts of the apple tree to not only enable it to grow in perpetuity, but to identify the apple.

"It is extremely unusual for a tree as old as this and growing in what I consider to be totally inhospitable conditions, to survive. It's terrible. Even rabbits bring a cut lunch when they come here.

"It puzzles me ... It is my 51st year in horticulture and I have never seen anything like it before. It's had scientific neglect for the last 80 years and survived. It's amazing."

There were many fascinating features about the craggy tree, whose branches have folded over the passage of time - to the extent they had poured off seeds and sprouted another tree nearby.

"It seems resistant to a lot of disease which I think is quite fascinating. Maybe it's got a gene in it that's keeping it safe.

"Normally you would expect an apple tree in this area to be full of codling moth. This has never been sprayed or ever seen insecticide. It is the ultimate no-care garden."

The tree had to have its "feet in the water" to have grown and survived this long, he said.

As to how the tree got there, someone had to have "dropped a bag of apples" or deliberately planted a tree, he said.

"If it was a pip - they never throw true and you end up with things that don't match. Despite its age, and size, it puts out good-size fruit ... The apple has not got solid colour - it's stripey and almost 100 per cent fleck which is amazing. Most apples this old never had this much colour."

There were 350 different apple varieties, and he planned to seek help from food and plant contacts in Hamilton to help in his quest to identify the apple, he said.

"It is an interesting project ... it is an interesting apple."

Vincent Community chairperson and Central Otago REAP Sustainable Living Program co-ordinator Clair Higginson said the tree also had strong heritage value.

It had been damaging the stone fence but members of the community had fought to prevent it from being cut down.

"Now, taking grafts will enable us to perpetuate the tree even if it does fail."

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