Monday, January 19, 2015

Winter Pruning Columnar Apple. 1.19.15

The same tree in 2009

North Pole Apple after pruning.  1.19.15

North Pole Apple after pruning.  1.19.15
Today I am on vacation.  Did a little pruning.  I am not up to a lot, but I can do a little.

I pruned North Pole apple tree, about 14 years old.  The goal is shorten the spurs enough to maintain columnar shape, exposing all apples to sunlight.  Shorten the top so all are within my reach.  I am 5'10 so that means, about 8  ft tall.

Next to clean up the mess under the tree.  Important for disease and insect prevention.  I didn't have the energy, but this week would be a good time.  Last year's apples were all wormy - I refuse to spray poison - and in my frustration, I didn't clean them up

Columnar apples are descended from a sport growing in a Canadian orchard on a McIntosh apple tree.   That was in 1961.  The original, named for the the farmer, is McIntosh "Wijcik".   Most if not all columnar apple trees are descended from the Wijcik mutation.   Hundreds of crosses have been made, resulting in many novel columnar apple trees.   I don't know how the apples, from those trees, taste, or how productive they are.  This North Pole is a good apple.  I am not a connoisseur, so not the best judge.  The main issue is wormy apples, which is culture method, not the tree's fault.  Cleaning up under the tree is important, and I plan to bag them next year. 

The gene leading to columnar growth has been mapped on apple chromosome #10, known as the "co" gene.   This gene is present in all columnar apple cultivars.   The mutation is entirely natural - Anthony Wijcik was looking at his McIntosh trees and happened to observe the unusual branch.  He cut it, using it as scion, propagated it, and ultimately sold it for propagation and development.  That tree was patented by Stark's Nurserys, but the patent has since run out.

Columnar apple trees are known in the UK as "Ballerina" trees.

 In wikipedia, Fisher is given credit for discovering the Wijcik McIntosh, but in Fisher's own writing, "At a Research Station Field Day in 1963, a grower approached me and said he had a peculiar stunted shoot of 'Mclntosh' originating adjacent to a cut at the top of a 50-year-old 'Mclntosh' tree. He had discovered this in 1961. I picked up an empty cigarette package and hastily wrote down his name and address, intending to visit him. Unfortunately I lost the package. Fortunately, two years later (1965) at a similar Field Day I recognized the same man, Mr. Tony Wijcik. Prior to harvest I visited his orchard in East Kelowna and inspected his sport. Although located in an advantageous position at the top of the tree in regard to light exposure, fruit from this sported shoot matured somewhat later than apples on the rest of the tree and had only fair color. The fruit was tightly packed on the very compact single shoot measuring about four feet in length. Mr. Wijcik had, by this time, taken buds and propagated a row of about 20 trees on M.26 rootstock."

I have tried to locate a patent on North Pole apple.  I don't think there is one.  It may have a trademark, which would mean progeny could not be identified by that name, but would be legal.

Back to  this particular tree, I have not found photos of old columnar apple trees.  Most catalog photos show very young specimens, often in containers.  They look like sticks with apples glued to the sides.  The mature tree is more sturdy, and the spurs tend to grow longer with time.

I have found that pruning the spurs back keeps the shape nicely.  I stubbed the top many years ago, and annually remove most of the growth above that point.  The bearing is prolific.  I just need a way to prevent insect damage to the fruit, which is true for all of my apples.


  1. wow, the shape of the tree is very nice. It makes picking them rather easy and space saving. Yes, its rather rare. Have not really seen it anywhere.

  2. Thanks Lance. The catalog photos don't do the columnar trees justice. I also have small - 3 to 4 ft tall - specimens of "Scarlet Sentinel" and "Golden Sentinel". Not sure if they will have as formal upright structure. They might, with some judicious pruning. I've eaten 2 apples from "Golden Sentinel" - those are quite good.

    These are nice in a mixed garden bed. They don't take up too much room.

  3. If I graft scions on a columnar tree would I get different variety of fruit that adapt the shape of columnar? I would love to have one like that their shape is so sculptural.

  4. Lance, the scions will be columnar only if they are a columnar variety. If non-columnar varieties are grafted onto a columnar tree, the non-columnar part will still be non-columnar.

    I thought about grafting a red-leaf crab apple on top of a columnar tree, to give it kind of a mop-top. Have not done that yet.

    Since they are kind of a novelty, they might not be available at a scion exchange for a few more years. The newest ones are probably patented, but the older ones are past patent so can be exchanged. Seedlings should come out about 50:50 with columnar shape, but who knows what the apples would be like. That's my other idea - cross Prairie Fire crab with North Star columnar apple. Select red leaf varieties, see which ones grow columnar shape. Then one might get red-leaf, columnar tree. That might take many years, and require many seedlings, so I probably won't do it.

  5. What I'd like to know is if one could graft Columnar Scionwood onto the scaffold branches of an Open-Pruned Apple Scion and get multiple columnar apple 'truns' growing to significant heights on a single full-strength rootstock.

  6. m_hennessy@sbcglobal.net10:55 PM

    We have five columnar apple trees that are fifteen years old and have never been pruned. The few apples it bore this year were too high to reach, so the squirrels got them. They are probably fifteen feet tall. Can they be pruned this winter or have we waited too long? Zone six in Missouri. Please advise.

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  7. Winter is fine for pruning apple trees. It's a good time to remove excessived growth. I would say try not to remove flower spurs, but it sounds like yours are already too high, and none at the lower level. If it was mine, I would prune it this winter. Of course, there is always a chance that it won't like that, but you are not getting any apples now anyway.

    One thing, if there are no lower flower buds and you remove all of the top growth, you won't get apples next year. It might be better to prune half of them this year, and the other half next year.