Vancouver’s Old Apple Tree, believed to be the oldest apple tree in the Pacific Northwest, has passed into history.
Its death was announced Saturday. It was 194 years old.
Over the decades, the Old Apple Tree was the embodiment of Washington’s apple industry and a tangible link to the Hudson’s Bay Company era. It witnessed the settlement and growth of the area and had survived ice, disease, the Columbus Day Storm and the encroachment of state Highway 14.
Dying leaves suddenly appeared throughout the tree last week, which prompted the city’s Urban Forestry staff to do a quick checkup. Arborists then conducted a thorough evaluation, and they found that the vascular system or cambium layer of the tree — which transports water and nutrients to the canopy — had shut down. Charles Ray, urban forester with the city, said this was largely attributed to a spiral crack in the trunk expanding. Hot weather exacerbated the problem.
Kelly Punteney, a former longtime caretaker of the tree, said extreme temperatures can be a killer for plants. He found out about the Old Apple Tree’s demise Friday night.
“I thought surely it would survive,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe it.”
The Old Apple Tree is located near the Vancouver Land Bridge across the street from Who Song and Larry’s restaurant and the Waterfront Renaissance Trail. The spiral crack in the trunk had expanded over the last several years, leading to decay and rot in a large part of the tree trunk. However, the leaves and branches of the tree were healthy and growing, and the tree continued to flower and produce apples.
Death is a relative term. The roots of the Old Apple Tree should carry on for another 200 years, Punteney said. The city and Old Apple Tree Research Team planned for this moment by nurturing several root suckers, which have produced small trees growing around the Old Apple Tree.
“I don’t think the legacy is gone, but the main trunk is gone,” Punteney said.
Ray said the team will determine which root sucker will make the best replacement tree.
“We knew this day would come at some point,” said Ray, who noted that most apple trees live about 20 years.
Considered the matriarch of Washington’s apple industry, the Old Apple Tree provided Clark County’s first apple harvest, one apple, in 1830. The English Greening apple tree was planted from seed in 1826 at historic Fort Vancouver, 30 years before Mother Joseph arrived in Vancouver on behalf of the Montreal-based Sisters of Charity of Providence and 63 years before Washington became a state.
According to the city’s heritage tree inventory, Royal Navy Lt. Aemilius Simpson attended a formal dinner in England before departing for the Pacific Northwest. A young woman collected some apple seeds leftover from the fruit dessert, dropped them in Simpson’s jacket pocket and said, “Plant these when you reach your Northwest wilderness.”
When Simpson reached Fort Vancouver, he wore the jacket for a formal dinner given in his honor by Dr. John McLoughlin. In 1826, the seeds were planted under McLoughlin’s direction.
Of the five original apple trees, the Old Apple Tree was the only one to survive.
When people questioned the truth of that story, Punteney sent an apple from the tree over to experts in England who verified it was an English Greening apple from that time period.
Local historian Pat Jollota heard that the Old Apple Tree was the lone survivor among the original five because it had a bird’s nest in it when all of the trees were supposed to be cut down. Then, the Old Apple Tree was going to be moved to Clark College to make way for a Highway 14 interchange.
But, the move faced such strong opposition that the entire interchange was delayed until it was designed to go around the tree.
“It’s just so inextricably woven into our community that it’s really a shock that it’s not going to be there,” Jollota said. “It was a part of us.”
Every time the tree was threatened or looked like it was going to die, people rallied around the Old Apple Tree. Jollota considers the Old Apple Tree a symbol of the community and our length of stay here.
“It felt like a friend,” Jollota said.
Many cuttings have been taken from the Old Apple Tree over the years. Punteney planted cuttings from the Old Apple Tree at East Fifth Street and Davis Avenue, cater-corner to Pearson Air Museum, and on the north side of the Clark County Historical Museum.
The museum’s executive director, Brad Richardson, said people link the Old Apple Tree with Fort Vancouver and the Hudson’s Bay period. Since then, the tree has been a silent observer to change in the community.
“It was a big deal,” he said.
Richardson said the museum will hold some sort of memorial for the Old Apple Tree. People can have deep connections with trees; the museum has received pieces of historic trees and things carved from the wood of important trees in the community.
“You can’t be a historian in Clark County without knowing about trees,” Richardson said.
The Old Apple Tree Research team will meet “to plan for the management of the tree and next steps to assure its legacy lives on,” the city said in a news release Saturday. Plans for this year’s Old Apple Tree Festival — typically held the first of October — are pending due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Urban Forestry invites the public to share stories and photos of the Old Apple Tree through the Letters to Trees program.