Monday, May 18, 2009
In celebration of island homesteaders and agricultural history, San Juan Island National Historical Park is rehabilitating an orchard planted 130 years ago by a pioneer family at English Camp.
This wonât look anything like todayâs commercial orchard, with its short, compact trees planted in closely knit rows. These full-sized trees will grow unfettered to heights of 25 and 45 feet â wild and natural, with a great canopy of leaves.
Planted in the mid-1870s by Isaac Sandwith, the one-acre orchard is located on West Valley Road just north of the parkâs south boundary. Islanders have long been aware of the orchard, which is dominated by one of the oldest pear trees in the country.
But it wasnât until ten years ago that the park invited Susan Dolan, historical landscape architect with the NPS regional office in Seattle, to inspect this ancient pear tree. She was hooked as soon as she blazed the trail through chest-high Nootka rose bushes and snowberry vines to what remained of the old orchard.
âCultural landscape preservation is valuable because it sustains rare heirloom plant varieties,â she said. âA preserved historic orchard is not only significant in terms of agricultural biodiversity conservation, it also gives us a glimpse into an 1800s landscape.â
Thus began a project that would eventually involve taking cuttings from nine surviving trees, tracing the varieties and grafting the cuttings to healthy young seedlings of similar stock. The grafted trees would be planted to recreate a representative sample of the landscape as it existed at the end of the joint military occupation. Dolan believes the Sandwith orchard is particularly significant in island history because the multiple varieties reveal it as a âhomestead garden.â
âIt was typical of homesteaders to plant orchards with a variety of species to have food for the table throughout the seasons,â she said. âThis way a mixture of pears, cherries, apples, apricots, and wild plums came into harvest sequentially.â
To recreate the orchard, saplings were propagated by cuttings not only from the surviving Sandwith trees, but also from the scatter of pear trees at the northwest end of the English Camp parade ground and from several plum trees in the vicinity of the Crook house. The cuttings were grafted onto seedling rootstock at the Raintree Nursery in Morton, Washington. In order to produce accurate clones of the old fruit trees, the new trees were grown at the nursery for two years before they were bareroot-planted in the orchard.
On March 14th, 23 trees â 11 pear, four apple, five apricot and three plum â were planted by park staff, a Washington Conservation Corps crew and island volunteers. Crews planted the trees 30 feet apart according to the grid layout established by Sandwith. Each tree received a six-foot-tall deer fence, nutritional mulch and white wash on the trunk to protect the tree from sun scald. They will be full-grown in about 20 years, and will begin to bear fruit in 10.
Todayâs high-yield trees bear fruit in just two years, but might live only 30 years. A standard apple tree on a seedling rootstock can live 200 years, a pear 250. One of the Sandwith-period apple trees still survives today. Of course, itâs unclear as to who may have planted this particular tree.
The orchard may also have been the enterprise of August Hoffmeister, the post sutler (storekeeper) at the Royal Marine Camp throughout the joint occupation. Hoffmeister occupied (without patent) an adjacent parcel, which also has a scattering of fruit trees near the Sandwith boundary.
But thatâs another story.