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Apple tree in Washington state known as matriarch of Pacific Northwest apple industry, dies at 194

The Pacific Northwest’s oldest apple tree has died at the age of 194 after being brought over to the US in the pocket of a British Navy lieutenant.

The Old Apple Tree in Vancouver, Washington, lived within the Vancouver National Historic Reserve after being planted in 1826. 

The state of Washington is famous for its apple orchards and the Old Apple Tree was considered the matriarch of the region’s apple industry. 

Charles Ray, the urban forester for the City of Vancouver, told CNN: ‘While we knew this day would come, we hoped it was still years away.’

According to Ray, experts caring for the tree in 2015 noticed that a part of the tree responsible for carrying water and nutrients to the top of the tree was beginning to die. 

That dying portion of the tree then caused a spiral crack in the trunk, which continued to hollow out until the tree died in June. 

Ray said the tree produced apples known as the ‘English Greenings,’ a classification used to describe old-world apples. 

Cameron Peace, a professor of tree fruit genetics, told CNN, that the tree ‘is not identical to any other named variety in a worldwide collaborative data set of several thousand apple variety DNA profiles’.

‘The Old Apple Tree is therefore unique, one-of-a-kind. It will carry genetic factors not present in other heirloom or modern cultivars,’ he said. 

Experts have been able to determine that the Old Apple Tree is almost certainly a grandchild of the French Reinette, a 500-year-old variety, according to Peace. 

Many years after the tree was planted a public park was built around it in 1984 and every year after that it became a tourist attraction for the city. 

Each October, the city held a festival to celebrate the Old Apple Tree and just last week, community members gathered to hold a remembrance ceremony for the tree. 

Since the 1984 festivals began, visitors would receive cuttings from the tree that they could use to plant in their backyards. 

Those who received the cuttings are being encouraged to share their stories or any memories about visiting the Old Apple Tree with the City of Vancouver’s ‘Letters to Trees’ program.

The Clark County Historical Museum held a virtual funeral for the tree last Sunday to allow mourners to share their stories and encounters with the tree. 

Brad Richardson, executive director of the Clark County Historical Museum, said in a press release: ‘It may be gone, but the history it both created and witnessed will live on.’  

The nature of the fur trade forced a long and arduous trade route between England and North America, but during that time, the Old Apple Tree arrived in the US as a seed that was transported by Royal Navy Lieutenant Aemilius Simpson. 

Simpson was heading to the Hudson Bay Company’s fur trading outpost in Vancouver from London and had kept some seeds of apples and grapes that he had eaten as a dessert, by placing them in a vest pocket, according to the City of Vancouver. 

When he arrived to Fort Vancouver, those seeds were given to Chief Factor John McLoughlin, who at the time was overseeing the establishment of local orchards.

The seeds were then planted by the gardener, William Bruce, or by Pierre Pambrun, and the seedlings became the basis for the first fruit trees at the fort.  

First mentions of the apple orchards occurred in 1834 and in 1841, William D. Brackenridge, with the US Navy Wilkes Expedition, stated: ‘Dr McLoughlin, who in the most friendly manner showed me round his gardens, under the keeping of Mr Bruce, a Scotch Highlander by birth.’ 

According to the City of Vancouver, this reference indicates that there was a formal orchard with upwards of 400-500 apple trees, occupying an area of between 5-10 acres. 

The actual location of the Old Apple Tree was some distance from the known locations of the gardens and orchard.  

Historical records state that the Old Apple Tree apparently gained national attention after a photograph of the tree was used in a horticultural encyclopedia dating to 1914.   

The fort eventually became an Army base and among those who served there was Ulysses S. Grant who became the 18th US president.  

And that wasn’t the only time the tree had a brush with a president.

In 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was presented with a pie baked with apples from the tree while he was visiting the area. 

The Old Apple Tree will live on through several root suckers, which are now small trees growing around it.

Research team, Bartlett Tree Experts, will donate its services for a new tree that will be structured similarly to the Old Apple Tree, in recognition of the historic site.

The remaining shell of the tree, which is about 4 feet to 5 feet tall, will remain for visual interpretation of the tree’s life cycle, according to Clark County Today. 

The team of experts said any other portions of the tree that are removed will be put in the National Park Service Museum collection to be preserved. 

The remaining saplings will be transplanted to the National Park Service historic orchard, during the fall or winter of 2020-2021.

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