Story by Petty Officer 1st Class Jeff Willadsen, Navy Region Northwest Public Affairs
SILVERDALE, Wash. – Many may be surprised to learn that a hidden botanical gem is growing behind the gates of a naval installation in the Pacific Northwest. They may also be surprised to learn that the Navy has taken extraordinary measures to preserve the genetic essence of this hidden treasure far past its dwindling lifespan.
On Naval Base Kitsap (NBK)-Bangor, a fruit orchard has been growing for nearly a hundred years. The orchard, located near the base’s waterfront industrial area, contains over 100 apple, cherry, pear and plum trees.
The trees are associated with several prior homestead parcels located near the historic town site of Bangor, Washington, and are estimated to range between 80 and 100 years old.
“These are trees that were planted in the backyards of people who lived in this area nearly a century ago, and were probably personally used for things like ciders and pies,” said Terri Jones, a forester for Naval Facilities Command Northwest (NAVFAC NW). “Walking through the orchard is like taking a step back in time.”
Sadly, the trees are reaching the end of their lifecycle. Due to their old age and animal damage over the years, the trees have considerably declined in health and viability. Many have rotted and hollowed out trunks and show little indication of the possibility for productive new growth.
According to Jones, the normal productive lifespan for fruit trees like these can be about 50 years, depending on the species.
“Trees have lifespans, just like people. Some species of trees live longer than others, but there are none that last forever,” said Jones. “There is a point in a tree’s life where fruit production declines, and eventually the tree will die. Looking at the age and decaying state of these trees, I wanted to do something to identify and preserve the orchard’s unique characteristics before we no longer could.”
In 2013, Jones, with the support of the environmental team at NAVFAC NW, took a proactive approach to addressing the orchard’s decline. A project was initiated to understand what genetically unique or scarce fruit varieties the trees offered, as well as how to preserve any potentially unique varieties past the trees’ lifespans.
As part of the project, NAVFAC NW benefited from the expertise of a pomologist.
“A pomologist is a specialist in the practice and science of growing fruit,” said Jones. “The pomologist was excellent at his job. In fact, he was able to distinguish the probable variety of some fruit trees just by tasting their fruit, which I thought was very impressive.”
Under direction of the pomologist’s expertise, the process of taking samples and studying the trees began. Samples from some of the trees, including genetically viable tissue known as “scion”, were collected, preserved, and DNA tested.
The DNA profiles from trees at the orchard were compared to known fruit tree varieties in databases from various agencies and organizations, including the Department of Agriculture and the Germplasm Resources Information Network. At the conclusion of this study, the pomologist identified four trees at the site as “genetically scarce” including, two varieties of apple, one pear and one plum.
“Once we learned that there are unique varieties at the orchard site, we wanted to preserve their genetics for future study and use,” said Jones.
The genetics of these unique trees has been preserved by grafting the scion samples to appropriate rootstock at a research and demonstration orchard outside of NBK. The intent is to maintain and evaluate these fruit varieties as they develop and preserve the trees’ original DNA for future use.
Preservation of scarce varieties like those found in the NBK orchard helps to maintain the diversity of fruit species for society in general. It also gives scientific researchers more genetic resources when trying to combat future pathogens and pests in an ever-changing environment.
Aside from the value to scientific research, conserving the orchard’s scarce varieties also contributes to the intrinsic value of preserving unique flavors of fruit for people to enjoy for years to come.
“I think it was very worthwhile to preserve the genetic essence of what people planted here so many years ago,” said Jones. “Now we will have these scarce fruit varieties available for generations to come, and I’m very happy with that outcome.”
Jones also noted that the decline of traditional, backyard orchards has contributed to the scarcity of fruit varieties. There is a simple way to combat this effect, she explained.
“You can make a lasting difference by planting fruit trees in your own community,” said Jones. “When you plant a tree in your own back yard, just imagine who could be tasting and benefiting from the fruits of your labor a hundred years from now.”