Old Apple Tree just keeps on growing

Vancouver festival celebrates 189 years of 'matriarch' of state's apple industry

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

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Vancouver’s beloved Old Apple Tree couldn’t possibly be immortal, could it?

“Same as ever. Hanging in there,” was urban forester Charles Ray’s status update about the storied 189-year-old entity as it knocked down yet another year — grizzled but growing, undeniably old but no end in sight.

That means there’s also no end in sight to local celebrations of this Pacific Northwest celebrity. Saturday’s Old Apple Tree Festival brought out hundreds of people who enjoyed bluegrass music, apple pie and apple cider pressings; took in tree-related artworks by local children, talks about the tree and guided tours of the history-minded Confluence Project Land Bridge where it sits; took away cuttings; and visited with local agencies and groups like Friends of the Trees, the Urban Forestry Commission and, of course, rangers from Fort Vancouver.

“I am really impressed by all the community groups who came out for this,” said park ranger Justine Hanrahan. At age 20, Hanrahan — who grew up in Vancouver and volunteered at the fort starting at 15 — said this is the first time she’s worked the Old Apple Tree festival as a staffer.

She said the long-lived tree is an invaluable link to local ecology and to local history.

Legend has it that the tree’s beginnings are at a formal party in 1825, as a flirtatious young woman slipped the leftover apple seeds from her fruit dessert off her plate and into the pocket of a departing Naval officer — who carried them from England all the way to Fort Vancouver.

In 1826, the seeds were planted, and five apple trees eventually grew. According to Hanrahan, this Old Apple Tree used to be in the backyard of one John Johnson, a resident of the diverse workers’ village that surrounded the fort.

Of those five original trees, this Old Apple Tree has endured floods, storms and the encroachment of railway and freeway to be the sole survivor. It’s often referred to as “the matriarch” of Washington state’s apple industry.

It’s a pretty grand reputation for a pretty modest-looking tree. “When you have an old tree like this, you have to make some decisions,” said Kevin Carr of Bartlett Tree Care, which has been working with Ray and the city to maintain the tree’s health and structure for years now.

Carr pointed out that the tree is structurally weak and hollow on the inside — where there’s a metal pipe helping to brace it — but it continues to put out “tremendous, vigorous growth” at its extremities.

Learn more about the Old Apple Tree at cityofvancouver.us/urbanforestry.