Words & Photos: Rebecca Lees
Today I’m on a wild scion wood hunt. It’s a cool winter’s day, and the timing is right to gather scion pencils to store, in the right conditions, until spring, when we’ll graft them onto root stock. But I’m not looking for any old fruit tree. I want the best. I’m looking for those that provide glorious fruit, with little or no disease or pests. Luckily I’m a little organised this year, I came out this way a few months back and jotted down the best trees’ locations, and those which had the tastiest fruit, on a hand-drawn map. And now, months later, I’m here again to gather the goods, while the trees sleep.
I find plenty of fruit trees on the sides of the road in South Canterbury. Some of these trees bear so much fruit each year people fill their car boots with sack loads. These fruit trees could have grown from cores thrown out windows, or they may have been planted there, with purpose, years ago. If an apple tree grows from a pip it’ll take several years, at least, before it bears fruit (often a crab apple). It’ll be a new kind of fruit tree variety, but until it starts to show its true colours, all those years later, you never really know what fruit you’ll end up with. That’s one of the reasons why we graft fruit trees (transplant one type of tree onto another tree). We want to ensure we grow exactly the type of tree we want.
Some of the fruit trees growing out this way look like more popular, well-known varieties. These may have been grafted themselves, then dug in and lovingly cared for by some farmer. Wherever the trees came from they’re here to stay, so why not make the most of them?
Scion wood should be collected during the winter, when trees are in their dormant phase. You don’t have to collect scion from wild trees growing on roadsides. Yours may come from fruit trees in your own backyard, your neighbour’s, or from anywhere really. You can collect all sorts of scions to enable you to graft trees; from stone fruits like plums and peaches, to apple trees, nut trees, even ornamental shrubs. What I enjoy about collecting wild scion are the stories behind the trees. ‘John Talbot Twisted Trunk’ was an apple scion my husband Sam collected last year. We don’t know the variety of the apple tree yet, so we gave it our own name. We’ll never forget where the tree came from – on John Talbot Road, the tree with the big twisted trunk.
So, if you’d like to give scion collecting a go, how do you do it? It’s all about timing. As mentioned, you collect the wood when the tree is dormant; its leaves have dropped and buds haven’t begun to move yet. If you collect the wood too early it will have more time to become dehydrated before being grafted onto root stock – but in saying that, scion wood has been known to last several months in the right conditions. If you collect the scions later and the sap flow is already on the move with the buds being pushed out – you’re too late.
Using sharp secateurs, cut the scion just above a bud. The wood you collect should be new one-year-old wood. This is usually the tips of branches, and you can often tell by the different colour of the wood. In apples it’s quite obvious, as there are little rings separating the years of growth. Once you’ve collected the scions you can cut them into pencil-size lengths. Be sure to take a pencil with you and write down the name of the tree, and its location.
When returning home place your labelled scions into a zip-lock bag (I use one bag for each tree type), with about a teaspoon of water in it. Then place this in the fridge. If you don’t have room in the fridge, you can try leaving the zip-lock in a damp sack in a cool place outdoors. Don’t allow too much moisture in the bag, you don’t want to generate rot – you just want to maintain the moisture levels of the scion wood when gathered.
If you know the tree you’d like to collect scion wood from and you’d like to collect quite a few then one trick is to prune back that tree hard the year before you collect the wood. This will stimulate plenty of new growth from which to gather scions.
The actual act of grafting fruit trees can seem too daunting for some gardeners. But there’s no need to be put off. We’ll tell you how in issue 448 (August 22), which will arrive in your letterbox or local shop just before spring.