Every Tree Has a Story

The Heritage Fruit Tree Preservation Project

By:  Peter Bane, editor, Permaculture Activist Magazine

 Like most areas in America’s rural hinterland, Colorado’s Roaring Fork valley has seen therise and fall of many economies in the past century-and a-half since settlers began scratching outhomes, farms, and ranches here on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. An oasis of water amid the high, arid plateaus and peaks of the Central Rockies, this region drew pioneering farmers and ranchers from eastern parts of the United States in large numbers with the coming of the transcontinental railroad about 1870. Coal was subsequently discovered near the north end of the valley, leading to a small boom that left its mark in the town of Carbondale. As silver mining burgeoned here and elsewhere in Colorado late in the century, prospecting drew more settlement to the Roaring Fork. At the same time, hot springs near Glenwood at the mouth of the valley became a fashionable destination for monied travelers. The early decades of the 20th century were a relatively quiet time that saw the area’s farmsand ranches exporting produce to urban centers within the Rocky Mountains. Those farms and ranches, or at least their water rights, are now being consumed by golf courses and housing developments, as urban refugees attempt to capitalize on the climate and scenery that make this mile-high valley a tourist magnet. Today the region is probably best known for it’s skiing and for the destination resort area surrounding Aspen, an international mecca for the rich and famous. Each of these waves of economic speculation has left a legacy, whether of pasturelands, mine tailings, cultural monuments, or pavement. Basalt residents Jerome Osentowski and MichaelThompson are concerned about which of these legacies may endure to serve the valley’s increasingly diverse community through the coming turmoil of energy descent.

Advocates for a permanent agriculture
Jerome, a permaculture teacher, nurseryman, and designer, whose career will be familiar to readers of this journal, and Michael, an architect and fruit enthusiast, have launched a project to locate, catalog, and preserve the Roaring Fork Valley’s fruit tree heritage. Jerome, who has lived on a rugged site above Basalt for nearly 30 years, developed a workingknowledge of the valley’s often orphaned fruit trees by gleaning their usually neglected crops to fill his winter larder in the years before his own forest garden began to yield. Michael, who bought a house in the town of Basalt 30 years ago, was drawn to his home, not only because his wife liked the house, but because of the magnificence of the ancient fruit trees that grew in its back yard and along surrounding streets. The two have found common cause in helping to bring this unseen treasure to the attention of their community. In the process they have unearthed a still living history of poignant dimension. In the years before California agriculture came to dominate the national market, when fresh fruit was a scarce and expensive luxury during much of the year, house holders and homesteaders knew the value of a good apple, pear, or plum tree near at hand. Early settlers in the Roaring Fork Valley, among them many Italian immigrants, brought trees with them from eastern states to grace their farms and ranches. Jerome and Michael tell of one of the area’s pioneers, Christine Lucksinger, who brought a grafted apple tree with her to a new life in central Colorado. That now 120-year old apple is still bearing fruit by the shores of Lake Christine, on property once owned by the Lucksinger family. Near it are venerable apricots, pears, and plums that fed valley families for many generations.

An irreplaceable treasure at risk
 Because the Roaring Fork was extensively farmed, the area today is dotted with remnant home orchards and solitary trees that have survived over a century, in some cases for up to 130 years. These trees are now disappearing or in jeopardy from development, old age, lack of awareness, and neglect. Yet this heritage is invaluable as a tested reservoir of fruit germplasm adapted to the area’s demanding climate. With an annual rainfall of only 17” and historically cold winters (Zone 4, below -25°F/-32°C), this part of Colorado lacked the reliable conditions that favored commercial orchards further west along the Colorado River at Delta, and around Paonia. Over the past century many ofthese horticultural veterans have endured temperatures to -50°F/-46°C, as well as searing drought,which makes their survival all the more remarkable and valuable. The Heritage Fruit Tree Project wants to make these fruits of early settlement available to a new generation of area residents. The centerpiece of the project is the creation of an edible park at a prominent location on public land. But this rests of many layers of research and outreach work. The project has begun to identify and catalog heritage trees throughout the valley. Michael Thompson is creating a map using GIS technology to locate the trees he and Jerome have already found. They have been aided by area residents who, hearing of their efforts, have begun contributing their ownknowledge. Jerome explains that he has gotten many calls from individuals who know of a special treein their neighborhood. Along with the calls and the fruit-exploring trips come stories. “Every tree has a story,” -relates Michael. In some cases the grandchildren of first settlers are still alive and have been able toconvey personal vignettes or corroborate estimates of the age of some of the specimens. The Heritage Fruit Tree Project has focused on determining the age, variety, and characteristics of each veterantree, but it has also become a seed for the collection and preservation of an oral history of the region.

Scouting, pruning, and grafting
The project plan calls for collecting digital photos of all the catalogued trees in three stages of growth: barren in winter, in blossom in early spring, and bearing fruit in late summer. In this waywide knowledge of the community’s resources can be made available on-line for continuing researchand extension. A second layer of preservation work involves rehabilitating and propagating these elite trees. Some ofthe old trees are damaged; others are in poor condition, having not been pruned in decades. In many cases, they could be brought back to a high level of productivity with judicious care. In his travels around the area, Jerome Osentowski has taken scion wood cuttings from many of the oldest trees for grafting onto strong rootstocks in his nursery at the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute. He has also been reaching out to other area nurseries to interest them in this unique resource. Establishment of a permanent research and demonstration park with examples of everyidentified variety will ensure their continued propagation over time. Aiming to include at least 50 varieties of apple, apricot, pear, peach, plum, and cherry, the park would also provide a venue for public events that focus awareness on the valley’s agricultural diversity. Already the fruits from these hardy trees have provided the grist for celebratory cider pressings and this year Jerome and Michael hope they will be sold, along with grafted trees of some of the varieties, in the Aspen Farmer’s Marketand other valley outlets.

A once and future splendor
And not least, the project incorporates a design for the future. Jerome and Michael have hosted programs for area middle and high school students to show them how to map the Heritage Trees and to demonstrate grafting techniques. They hope the youngsters will find a love for these trees that will nurture them through the generations to come. Jerome, who has hosted programs about the Heritage Fruit Tree project on the area’s two public radiostations, points out that these enduring trees, going quietly about their business for a century andmore, have carried forward a legacy of life that valley residents can little afford to squander. Times arecoming again that will be as hard as the 1880s or 1930s, when an apple was a meal and a bushel ofthem was real wealth. Intervening now to ensure the survival of this collective heritage is one of themost important and foresighted efforts that valley residents could support. Plantings such as those in the Roaring Fork Valley exist in thousands of communities across America, and are for the most part equally neglected. Each is a unique expression of its region’s climate and biological heritage. Who will save the heroic trees in your neighborhood? Who can hear the voices of the grandchildren to come?

Peter Bane has taught permaculture design in the Roaring Fork Valley and from Hawaii to GeorgianBay to Patagonia. Readers wishing to support the Heritage Fruit Tree Awareness Project may contact:jerome@crmpi.org  or mthompson.architect@gmail.com . CRMPI is a 501(c)3 non-profit organizationand contributions are tax deductible.