2017-05-10 / From the Forest

Vigor Versus Fruit

By Ryan Trapani, CFA Exec. Director

Every season is special in some way, but spring seems somehow more hopeful. Spring is a time when forest and fields transition from “browns” to “lush greens.” To me, flowers aren’t merely a romantic notion but also a more practical one too. The path to fruit is through the flower and when the landscape explodes in forested floral ambiance, confidence in realizing a fruitful autumnal season is increased. More fruit in the forest isn’t just good for wildlife, but for my family too. I spend a lot of money at the grocery store these days on apples, peaches, and pears; I can’t help it. Last year was a floral dud that led to a fruitless fall, which led to fewer trips to the woods for apples and more to the store.

After growing a few apple trees myself, I do understand the work involved in growing a single apple and the prices they command. A fence must be installed for keeping out the deer. A smaller fence is necessary for keeping voles away. Don’t forget about the plethora of insects that enjoy spring’s “greening” too. They can be found defoliating your apple trees soon after leaf-out. And then there is summer’s torrential rains, or last year’s drought to contend with.

Back to the Flowers

It seems like the focus on apple trees is sometimes on growth at the expense of flowers and fruit. Although some growth is necessary to produce some flowers, there can be more involved. Some people’s apple trees are “growing like gangbusters” but few flowers dot their tree in the spring. How is this possible?

Right now, is a perfect time of year to analyze flowers on apple trees. First, you’ll probably notice that trees with the most flowers are those that are growing in full sunlight. On closer inspection is deciphering the difference of where the flowers are mostly located on the apple tree. Normally, there are few (if any) flowers on branches growing extremely vigorously or straight up. Instead, flowers are usually more abundant on branches containing a more “horizontal” growth pattern. Orchardists call this “scaffolding” similar to rungs of a latter.

Branches that mimic “rungs of a ladder” aren’t just good for holding heavily laden fruit but also are responsible for producing the fruit in the first place. Think of branches as conduits of sugars or carbohydrates created from photosynthesis. When they grow vertically, sugars easily run out. When they are tilted or pruned towards the horizontal, more sugars or carbohydrates remain. These carbohydrates can be used to create fruit buds instead of vegetative buds. Fruit buds are expensive for trees to make and require lots of energy.

So, there you have it. Apple trees shaped or pruned with a “scaffolding pattern” will normally bear more fruit that one with merely upright shoots. Last week, I observed one tree that plainly exhibited this feature. Half of one side of the tree consisted of vertical shoots and were flowerless, while the other side contained horizontal branches and was flowerful. www.catskillforest.org

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