Restoring The Orchard at the New England Botanic Garden at Tower Hill

In the 1930s, agriculture was saying goodbye to small scale and diversity, and large commercial orchards were replacing the orchards of the past. Traditional varieties were discarded in favor of Macs and Cortlands, Red Delicious, and a few other modern apples. Old orchards were cut down, the wood burned and stumps grubbed out. One of those delegated to rid central Massachusetts of its old orchards was Stearns Lothrop Davenport (1887-1973). Davy, as he was called (rhymes with savvy not gravy), realized that although he may be cleansing the landscape of old diseased trees, he was also killing off treasured varieties that had been nurtured for generations. As he located old varieties, he collected scionwood and grafted it to rootstock at his Creeper Hill Experimental Orchard.

Over the next few decades, in collaboration with the Worcester Horticultural Society and Old Sturbridge Village, he and others created a collection of 119 historic apples. That collection wound up at the New England Botanic Garden at Tower Hill in Boylston, MA. Each fall they held an apple festival and each winter they sold scionwood throughout the country. Many varieties were saved that would surely be extinct. What began as one person’s effort to save local apple genetic heritage became an inspiration to collectors around the world.

As the orchard grew old, the trees began to suffer from fireblight and other challenges. They had been grafted onto dwarf and semi-dwarf rootstocks, which are not long-lived. It looked as though the orchard and many classic apple varieties would be lost so Fedco and Tower Hill began collaborating to restore the collection. In January 2019, we cut scionwood from every tree, and our growers grafted the entire collection. The old trees were then cut down, and Fedco is now the keeper of this legacy. The following spring, we sent grafted trees of 119 varieties from central Maine to Boylston on a truck. A new orchard has been planted, the collection has been restored, and the varieties will live on for many generations.

Image: A young apple tree grows on a slope at Tower Hill Orchard