In late February on a gorgeous sunny afternoon, we packed up the two kids and the dog to go on a hike. My wife wanted to show me a new spot she had just recently found and it proved to be a very interesting and fruitful hike. I am hesitant to reveal the exact location of this piece of urban wasteland and future nature sanctuary, but I can tell you this much. For many years it was a large rail yard, there are remnants of a 100 year old brewery, an old industrial site, and other artifacts and ruins from a century of urban decay. And through all the industrial abuse and mistreatment of this land, nature has still prevailed.
The eastern edge of this area is lined with sandstone bluffs and towering cottonwood and poplar trees standing guard. Further down, where the bluffs meet the ground are a number of ancient springs bubbling up out of the porous rock and filling up a number of caves with water. From the caves flows a stream that even in winter is unfrozen and is populated by large clumps of green and verdant water cress. One cave in particular has some very interesting history buried deep down in its dark cavern.
Local legend has it that there is a very large underground lake, fed by the springs, deep within this cave. Legend also says that this spot, where water issued forth from the Earth and met the land and sky was the birthplace of the local Dakota people. This cave is now closed to visitors by a giant iron door, but supposedly while it was still open, you could take a canoe back into the dark recesses of the cave and see petroglyphs on the sandstone walls – artwork from a time long passed.
Regardless of the accuracy of these tales and legends that are buried in the sandstone bluffs, this small piece of ground that has survived industrial abuse is a living testament to the resilient force that is nature. On our brief hike through this flat river valley land, I was able to identify a fair number of plants that call this area home. Along with the cottonwoods, poplars, and watercress already mentioned, there are lots of box elder trees (a close relative of maples that can also be tapped for their sweet sap), elms, hackberry, burr oak (which is part of the cities’ effort to restore this area), asters, goldenrod, Black Eyed Susans, sunflowers, cattails, wild grapes, and a handful of others that I could not identify due to snow cover and the time of year.
There is one other tree though that deserves a bit more attention than the rest though. On our way back to the parking area, we took a different loop of the hiking trail than we had come in on. Stopping to read a small placard that related a bit of the history of the former rail yards and the recent effort to replant the oak savanna that once stood here, I noticed to the northwest of me, at about a distance of 30-40 yards, what appeared to be a rather large apple tree laden with fruit!
I immediately set out for the tree and as I approached it my suspicions were proven correct! There in front of me, standing maybe 25 feet tall was a gorgeous, if not slightly tangled and messy, 3 trunked tree loaded with apples in the upper branches! Upon seeing this I instantly time traveled back to the age of 8 when I was hiking through an apple orchard and learning about how you can eat winter apples that are still hanging on the tree. I lifted my daughter up above my head and we were able to get a few of them down. Wow!! What a treat they were.
Tasting of a mildly tart, sweet apple with obvious hints of cinnamon, and the consistency of frozen apple sauce, they appear to be a red skinned, small to medium crab apple that tend to grow in clusters. The other characteristic that is very interesting is how well they hold onto the tree. Being that it is now March, and that there are still hundreds of apples in the upper reaches of the tree tells me that these apples were appealing to some kind of animal (whether that is of the two footed or the four footed variety I do not know) earlier in the season.
While it is possible that this apple tree is a known, grafted cultivar intentionally planted there by human hands, I have another theory of how this apple tree came to find itself in this location -
It was a hot, humid end of summer day in early September. Taking a siesta from the back breaking work of a train mechanic, a worker settled down in the still hot shade of a broken locomotive to rest and eat his lunch. After finishing his bologna, onion, and lettuce sandwich, and sipping on a thermos of lukewarm coffee, he reached into his lunch sack and took out an apple for dessert. Like any other day, he relished the crisp, sweet flesh of a fresh apple. Taking his time to finish it, he took a moment to look up at the tree covered bluffs and the eagle flying high over head before throwing the apple core into the weedy mess at the far side of the rail yard.
There it came to rest between a few small pieces of broken concrete and the diffuse shade of brambles and pigweed, and started the next phase of its life. Later that fall as the weeds died back and the trees on the bluff began to lose their leaves, a skinny, stray dog did a good job of fertilizing the area around the apple core. Going into winter well fed and with a warm blanket of leaves and snow, the apple core emerged that following spring soggy and falling apart.
One of the seeds found this new, moist and warm environment conducive to sprouting and began its long journey to becoming a tree. Over the next few seasons, protected by the brambles, and far enough out of the way to not be outright trampled by train workers and sneaky hobos, the tree began to grow a large and healthy root system, and also started heading for the sun high above.
That next autumn, when work began on decommissioning the rail yard, earth movers and tractor trailers tore up the landscape. As tracks were removed and stacked up to be hauled away, the tree yielded to a ton of of steel and iron and snapped off at the ground. Work continued on and no one ever knew about the young apple tree growing on the far side of the yard.
But nature is full of evolutionary miracles, and the next spring issuing forth from the still living, healthy root system came a crows foot of three new branches. This new growth was incredibly vigorous, and even the pioneer plants like buck thorn could not keep pace with this young apple tree. And for the (at least) last 30 years, this tree has grown and thrived in this urban wasteland of weeds and industrial decay, and has provided a snack for the hungry urban wilderness explorer!
So there is the story of the “Rail Yard Pippin” or how about “Cinnamon Hobo” crab apple? All joking aside, if this is truly a chance seedling apple tree and its fresh qualities are as good or better than the frozen, mushy winter version (which literally tasted of cinnamon!), than it is quite a find! Figures vary, but somewhere in the neighborhood of one in a 1000 apple seedlings are worth keeping and naming for some culinary purpose (fresh eating, baking, drying, or for cider), so this tree could be quite the gem worth saving and passing on.
Because it is almost spring and all I have on my mind is plants and propagation, I just happened to have my pruners in my pocket when we were out hiking. I collected a bunch of scion wood from this tree to add to this years growing collection of fruit tree genetics. It will be grafted onto one of the !Frankentrees!, and also probably get some of its own roots as well. Crab apples tend to be great pollinators and a welcome addition to any hard or soft cider, so it could fill a number of roles in the orchard.
If any of you readers out there, whether you are a part of the Scion Exchange or not, would like to try grafting and growing this variety; and also acting as a micro-agricultural-research station to collect data such as growth habit, disease resistance, hardiness, fruit characteristics, and storage ability, email me and we can arrange something.
Regardless of whether this apple is truly worth keeping or not, it was fun “discovering” the tree and seeing the spirit of Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman still at work in the most unlikely of spots! And by the way, which name do all you readers out there prefer – “Rail Yard Pippin” or “Cinnamon Hobo Crab apple”? Let me know …. Peace & Cheers