UPDATE: Wind, drought damage Old Apple Tree

Spiral crack develops in 186-year-old tree's trunk

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

Published:

Updated: October 11, 2012, 8:04 PM

 

Arborists believe Vancouver’s Old Apple Tree still has some good years ahead despite a new crack that formed in its 186-year-old trunk over the weekend.

“It’s a remarkable tree, and its genetics are off the chart for what it has survived,” said Charles Ray, urban forester for the city of Vancouver. “It’s not immortal, and at some point it will decline, but we still believe it’s a viable tree.”

Unusually dry, windy weather caused a new, roughly foot-long spiral crack to form at the east end of the tree’s base. The crack was discovered by those gathered at the Old Apple Tree Festival held last weekend.

The Old Apple Tree Research Team, a group dedicated to the tree’s preservation, worked over the weekend to keep the crack from expanding. They temporarily strapped the tree, then performed reduction cuts on some branches to reduce weight and keep its boughs from catching wind.

The strap has since been removed and the crack has yet to grow, Ray said Thursday.

The tree is showing its age with its hollow trunk and broken limbs, but it still blooms and provides a small fruit crop each year. The exact variety of its apples is unknown, but the fruit is some type of English greening apple, according to Ray.

“But it’s more than a tree, it’s a monument,” Ray said. “It’s touched a lot of lives and generations.”

The tree’s lore begins in 1826 when British Lt. Emilius Simpson, cousin of Hudson’s Bay Company Governor Sir George Simpson, arrived at Fort Vancouver and discovered apple seeds in his coat pocket, placed there by a female dinner guest before his voyage from London. The seeds were planted and the tree grew.

The typical apple tree can live up to 40 years. But this tree has stood in its spot near the Columbia River since Vancouver was an outpost for the British fur trading company. John Quincy Adams was U.S. president when the tree was first planted; since then it has survived 38 men over 39 presidencies.

The city’s Old Apple Tree was 70 years old when the first modern Olympics were held in Athens. It was 163 years old when the Berlin Wall fell.

“Looking at history is a good way to look at it,” said National Park Service park ranger Cassie Anderson. “We like to emphasize that the Old Apple Tree is the oldest living remnant of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Everything original we have of the Hudson’s Bay Company is below the ground, except the Old Apple Tree.”

The tree has stayed alive despite the nearby railroad tracks and state highway. It has survived floods and heavy storms. Anderson said the park service often gets inquiries about the tree’s safety after big storms or high winds.

“I’m always touched that the public cares about the tree,” Anderson said. “The legacy of the tree is something the community really values.”

The community has invested in keeping the tree alive through the years with donations and volunteer work.

Ray said in the 1950s someone stuck the axle of a vehicle into the tree’s hollow base to keep it growing upright. In 2009, chicken wire was installed over the holes in its trunk to keep vandals at bay. Grafting efforts have recently been undertaken in an attempt to repair the damage.

The Old Apple Tree Research Team consists of representatives from local farms, tree care companies and governments. Ray estimates about $2,000 worth of time and supplies are donated each year to keep the tree alive.

A chain link fence currently surrounds the Old Apple Tree, as it has grown more fragile in its old age. The city is asking people to stay behind the fence to protect it from further damage.

Erik Hidle: 360-735-4542; erik.hidle@columbian.com.