Development of a Locally-Adapted Apple Rootstock for the Maritime Northwest

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2017: $13,988.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2020
Grant Recipient: Eric Lee-Mader
Region: Western
State: Washington
Principal Investigator:
Eric Lee-Mader
Eric Lee-Mader


  • Fruits: apples


  • Crop Production: grafting, varieties and cultivars
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development

    Proposal summary:

    Grafting apple trees onto specific rootstocks for size control, early bearing, and pest and disease 
    resistance has been practiced for hundreds of years. This practice was formalized in Europe during 
    the 1800s with the selection of distinct rootstock cultivars. By the 1970s and 80s apple rootstock 
    development peaked with research programs in new regions including Russia and the United States 
    (notably the Cornell/USDA research station in Geneva, NY).
    Despite this, the diversity of rootstocks today remains extremely limited. A review of nurseries 
    typically reveals readily available sources only of the Geneva selections, the Malling (England) 
    rootstocks, or the Russian BUD rootstocks. This represents rootstocks selected at only three 
    locations, optimized for three climates, three soil types, and common production challenges found 
    in three regions.
    While good efforts have been made to evaluate the adaptability of rootstocks beyond the research 
    stations where they were selected, screening usually takes place where the apple industry is 
    already established (and where previous Geneva, Malling, and Russian rootstocks were already 
    successful). This does little to expand the range of rootstock options for new regions and new 
    The result is that aspiring apple growers are often forced to artificially re-create optimal 
    growing conditions for the rootstocks available to them. Irrigation systems, drain tile, even the 
    placement of apple trees on elevated beds are just a few of the common ways producers modify their 
    land to sustain non-locally adapted rootstocks.
    We believe this approach is flawed. Rather than altering land and water to meet the needs of a 
    crop, an agro-ecological approach should foster crops that are adapted to local conditions. Our 
    project proposes to develop exactly such an option for the maritime Pacific Northwest.
    Six species in the Malus genus are native to North America. In the West this includes Malus fusca 
    (the Pacific crabapple), a species that is abundant in maritime climates extending from Alaska to 
    Northern California. Unique among apple species, Malus fusca exhibits a
    wide-range of adaptability to common maritime site conditions: thriving in hydric and wetland soils 
    (including saltwater estuaries), as well as in heavy clay soils, and poorly drained upland sites. 
    It is considered a keystone native species in both high rainfall climates such as coastal mountain 
    rainforests, and in lowland rainshadow environments such as the Puget Sound ‘banana belt’ where 
    local rainfall averages may total less than 20 inches annually.
    Periodically amateur pomologists and backyard orchardists in the Northwest have dabbled with the 
    use of Malus fusca as a rootstock for table apple varieties. Anecdotally, these novelty grafts have 
    been largely successful, apparently thriving even in conditions where traditional apple rootstocks 
    do not, such as wet meadows. Unfortunately there is no actual research demonstrating how widely 
    compatible  Malus fusca is with various apple varieties.
    Through this project we will establish a research block of Malus fusca rootstocks, testing at least 
    40 high value apple varieties for grafting compatibility over a three-year period. By successfully 
    demonstrating high levels of grafting compatibility with multiple apple varieties, this project has 
    the potential to:
    Provide significant new economic opportunities for farmers in western California, Oregon, 
    Washington, and Alaska by offering a viable apple rootstock for wet and poorly drained locations – 
    in many of these regions urbanization has consumed the best agricultural lands, squeezing farmers 
    onto poorly drained and other sub-optimal lands;
    Eliminate the need to drain wet farm fields for crop production – a goal aligned with USDA 
    conservation programs;
    Encourage greater adoption of perennial agriculture and the associated benefits to carbon 
    sequestration and soil and water conservation;
    Provide a fully fire blight-resistant rootstock – Malus fusca has documented polygenic resistance 
    to fire blight;
    Foster a more ‘native’ and ecologically appropriate crop system, potentially supporting native soil 
    Support more localized apple production near major cities such as San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, 
    and Juneau.
    The research component of this project will be conducted at our farm located on Washington’s 
    Whidbey Island, the center of Malus fusca’s native range, and will be supported by a robust 
    educational program that includes an ongoing project blog on our farm website, the development of a 
    conference poster and workshop session, and a bulletin summarizing project results distributed in 
    partnership with Washington State University Extension. These outreach resources will be promoted 
    through farm and apple industry media.
    This project is led by farmer and ecologist Eric Lee-Mäder. Eric holds a masters degree from the 
    University of Minnesota Department of
    Horticulture where he studied commercial fruit production and tree nursery management. His 
    professional background includes previous work as a beekeeper, an Extension educator, and crop 
    consultant to the native plant nursery industry. He currently co-directs the Xerces Society’s 
    Pollinator Conservation Program ( where he works with farmers, companies, and 
    government agencies to enhance biodiversity in agricultural lands. Eric is the author of several 
    books including the best-selling Attracting Native Pollinators, and Farming with Beneficial 
    Insects. Through his current position at Xerces, Eric has collaborated on multiple highly 
    successful SARE projects in all four SARE regions, impacting tens-of-thousands of acres and 
    reaching thousands of farmers and agency professionals.
    This project is supported by technical advisor Dr. Carol Miles of Washington State University. Dr. 
    Miles currently leads research and extension in cider apple production in Western Washington, 
    including orchard establishment economics, apple variety trials, and cider quality evaluation. 
    Along with grafting and horticulture-related technical support, Dr. Miles will assist with the 
    dissemination of project findings.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Activities for this project include:
    Year 1.
    1. January – December 2017: Launch a project blog on our farm website and perform regular updates
    ( To develop a blog audience we will create a press release for distribution to farm and apple
    industry media. Additionally we will conduct a survey via the blog to capture basic audience information and interests.
    2. January – February 2017: Pre-order bare root Malus fusca seedlings from supplier native plant nurseries.
    3. February – September 2017: Prepare the research plot, including a) removal of two dead trees, b) mowing and herbicide treatments
    to remove weedy vegetation, c) re-seeding with a permanent orchard cover crop (e.g. meadow barley and other site-adapted native
    grasses), and d) clean-up the old field road to the research site.
    4. June – August 2017: Protect the research plot by installing deer fencing prior to planting.
    Year 2.
    1. January – February 2018: Collect scion wood from apple industry contacts, commercial sources, and research station orchards. Note
    that we will test at least 40 scion varieties (10 replicates of each) with an emphasis on varieties in high demand by Seattle and
    Portland markets. These include cider varieties such as Wickson, Dabinett, Bedan, Binet Rouge, and Amere de Berthencourt, as well
    as heirloom table apples, such as Spitzenberg and Ashmead’s Kernel (based upon scion wood availability).
    2. March – April 2018: Conduct bench grafting and planting of seedlings.
    3. April – September 2018: Manage trees for establishment success, including the installation of rodent-guards.
    4. May – October 2018: Perform monthly evaluations of grafting success, recording percent success by variety.
    5. January – December 2018: Post regular blog updates, and conduct a second annual blog survey to assess audience engagement.
    Year 3.
    1. April – October 2019: Perform monthly evaluations of grafting success, recording results by variety.
    2. January – December 2019: Post regular blog updates. Additionally we will post a project summary at the end of the year, along with
    a final survey to capture producer adoption and interest.
    3. November – December 2019: Develop a poster, workshop abstract, and bulletin documenting the compatibility of various scion
    varieties. The first of these two products will be submitted as conference proposals at major West Coast farm conferences including
    the 2019 Washington Tilth Alliance conference, Oregon’s Organicology and California’s EcoFarm conference. The bulletin will be
    available as a free download on our website and distributed at conferences. Additionally, the bulletin and findings will be promoted
    through a press release to farm and apple industry media.
    Beyond the end of SARE funding, we will continue to assess additional traits of
    Malus fusca as a rootstock, including suckering, graft union strength, and growth
    rates. Those results will continue to be publicly shared.
    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.