Tuesday, August 11, 2020
Aug. 11, 2020

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In Our View: Vancouver’s Old Apple Tree felt like a friend

The Columbian

It wasn’t much to look at in its final years, kind of scraggly and frail. And its apples reportedly weren’t much to eat, even in its prime. And its name scores big points for accuracy, yet falls a bit short in terms of creativity.

But the Old Apple Tree was ours, a part of Vancouver’s past as well as its present. So, when it was declared dead last week at the age of 194, it took a little of the city’s heritage with it.

The Old Apple Tree lived a long and productive life. For nearly two centuries it stood as witness to development as the region transformed from an isolated outpost to become part of a modern metropolis. Located between the Columbia River and the current incarnation of Fort Vancouver, the tree has held a prime spot for watching history go by. In that regard it was unique.

As the website ThePresentTree.com explains: “Every tree has a story. Trees have the power to symbolize, inspire and express our deepest feelings of love, gratitude, protection and happiness. These majestic friends of the earth are so treasured, that since ancient times each one has been honored with a special meaning. Each tree’s strength, beauty and stillness has symbolized the magic and wonder of life in the world of myths and folklore.”

That might be a bit melodramatic, but there is no doubting the impact of the Old Apple Tree.

Grown from seeds brought from England in 1826, the tree’s planting was overseen by Dr. John McLoughlin. It took root decades before Mother Joseph arrived in the region, and 63 years before Washington became a state. That’s a lot of history.

But simply living a long time is not the tree’s most notable attribute. It is considered the matriarch of Washington’s apple industry, an industry that annually produces more than 2 million tons of fruit and generates about $2.5 billion in revenue. Nutrient-rich soil and an ideal climate are credited with making Washington the perfect place for growing apples, leading to a crop roughly five times the size of the next most productive state.

That industry has evolved since its purported genesis with an English Greening tree near the Columbia River. Now there are Honeycrisps and Braeburns and Cosmic Crisps and dozens of other varieties. While apples mostly came in three varieties just a couple decades ago — red, green and the other green — a trip to any grocery store these days presents a veritable smorgasbord of choices.

Most of the modern varieties are better eating apples than the English Greening, which has a sour taste and is primarily used for baking. And to think — the withered tree in Vancouver is credited with launching the industry that has cultivated them.

“It’s just so inextricably woven into our community that it’s really a shock that it’s not going to be there,” local historian Pat Jollota told The Columbian. “It was a part of us. It felt like a friend.”

Almost 200 years worth of Clark County residents have been able to say the same thing, with the Old Apple Tree outliving the typical apple tree by about 18 decades.

While the matriarch has died, countless offspring continue to be enjoyed throughout the region. Among them is a 30-foot tree planted in 1950 on the north side of the Clark County Historical Museum. Others are found in the form of saplings growing around the original tree; officials say one of those will be selected and nurtured as the new Old Apple Tree.

There is no telling what twists and turns of Clark County history will pass by the new Old Apple Tree.