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The Science of Grafted Fruit Trees

by Elmer on 03/13/2012
apple seeds

Have you ever wondered why you can’t always grow a true-to-name fruit tree from planting seeds? Folks often ask if it’s possible to take the seeds from an apple, plant them, and grow trees that yield the same exact type of apples the seeds came from.

Unfortunately, for most fruit trees*, this isn’t quite how it works. To explain, we’ll start by addressing the history contained in seeds and why it’s more reliable to plant and grow grafted fruit trees.

*There are exceptions that tend to have very little variation even as seed-grown trees, like pawpaw seedlings and certain types of citrus.

Reproduction in Fruit Trees

We’ll use apple trees for example here. Most apple trees are not self-fertile. This means they need another different apple tree blooming nearby (at the same time) to pollinate the blossoms that in turn become the fruit.

So, if you had a Honeycrisp apple tree, you would need a different apple variety, like a Golden Delicious apple tree, to pollinate it. From one tree to the other, the male flower parts’ genetic material pollinates the female parts of the flowers (with the help of bees, wind, etc.). The end result is fruit development in both mature apple trees.

History is Contained in Seeds

This cross-pollination is called sexual reproduction in fruit trees. Even if a fruit-tree variety is considered to be self-pollinating, it is still receptive of other pollen — and the seeds of its fruit end up with all the history from past generations of the parent trees. The results of the combined genetic material occur in the seeds, not the fruit. This is why cross-pollination can occur in your fruit tree’s flowers and not affect the color or appearance of that fruit.

The fruit is merely a vessel for the seeds. The seeds are what carry a history of traits from the parent tree and its pollination partner(s).

That’s a lot of potential, but it’s also unpredictable. If you were to plant the seed from a Honeycrisp apple, the resulting apple tree and its fruit may display characteristics from anywhere in its lineage. The tree or its fruit may be similar to Honeycrisp or they may be throwbacks from somewhere in the genetic history, but – because they came from seed – they will not be a true Honeycrisp apple tree or true Honeycrisp apples.

Grafting for Consistency

One dependable way to ensure that the desired characteristics are maintained in subsequent fruit trees is through grafting. Grafting involves taking a scion or bud chip cut from the desired parent tree (for example, a Granny Smith apple tree) and physically placing it onto a compatible rootstock. The variety and the rootstock are calloused, or grown together, as the tree heals. All suckers are removed from the rootstock, and the Granny Smith scion is allowed to grow into the new tree, thus maintaining its Granny Smith identity. This process is called “asexual reproduction” (apart from sex). Since only one parent/variety is involved in this process, the grafted tree will be true-to-name — and a true-to-name tree bears true-to-name fruit.

Most of Stark Bro’s trees are either propagated through grafting — by joining a scion and rootstock together — or through budding. Budding involves placing a single vegetative bud into the side of the rootstock and wrapping it with cellophane tape until it heals together. The results of grafting and budding are the same: a true-to-name tree.

A grafted tree is consistent and has a reliable history of characteristics. It has a track record:

  • It blooms at a certain time.
  • It bears fruit at a certain time.
  • It has predictable traits like disease-resistance or cold-hardiness.
  • Its fruit can be expected to be a certain size, quality, and variety.

See the consistency in size and shape of these grafted fruit trees?

With this in mind, I will always recommend you plant trees that were propagated through grafting or budding methods. It’s worth the investment to know exactly what you’re getting!

– Elmer

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40 Comments

  1. Janet Mixon permalink

    Do you offer a service of grafting trees for your costomers. I have a pear tree that I love, but it is on the downhill slide. I would love to have this tree propagated. Thanks, Janet Mixon

    • I’m not affiliated with the site, and I have no idea if they do grafting services (that seems like something that a local nursery should take care of), but I had something like this come up with a fig tree this year. You may want to consider making a cutting and rooting it. There’s a ton of info out there about both doing your own grafting and rooting cuttings. I use bottled rooting hormone, myself, but I really want a willow tree so I can produce my own. In your place, I would try to raise both a root cutting and a tip cutting in order to make the same kind of graft as the plants grow. I currently have something like 8 or 10 little fig trees starting from my now deceased parent plant. Good luck with your pear tree.

      • Nef, please, tell me how to make rooting hormone from willow trees, or how to use the willow tree in doing this.
        Thanks.
        :-)

        • Amber permalink

          Hi Alicia — We cannot make rooting hormone powder at home.
          An little bottle of the rooting hormone powder is inexpensive and available at all gardening departments and local nursery stores including Home Depot. It is very easy to use! It works if you follow directions. Watch some YouTube videos on how to use rooting powder to make cuttings. Also… many old farmers around here have rooted pear trees in a plastic trashcan 2/3s filled with potting soil. Get help from the best gardener in your town. :)

    • Hi Janet! This is not a service that we provide customers but I do think that if you check with your local county extension agent they will be able to connect you with someone who does provide this service in your area.

    • Peter permalink

      I personally don’t consider grafting to be the same thing as propagation, although there are many people who consider grafting a form of propagation, and most plant propagation literature will discuss grafting. Anyways, I consider grafting a type of tree augmentation and propagation as producing new plants from parent plant material.

      Anyways, it sounds like to me that you’re trying to get a new pear tree from the one you have in your backyard so you’ll have to learn a bit about both to do it properly, although if you only want to change the pear tree variety, you would only have to graft it.

      Here’s a guide on grafting from North Carolina St.(http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/grafting.html). If you’re trying to change your pear tree variety, then focus on the cleft or bark graft. The next four grafting methods after the cleft and bark graft (side-veneer to saddle) are the ones you should focus on if you’re trying to duplicate the pear tree you have. You’ll need to find a rootstock then graft your scion (which in this case will be your pear tree) onto it. I don’t know if Stark Bro’s sell one year old rootstocks to people, but you should contact your local extension on what rootstock to get and find a reliable dealer (like Stark Bro’s, I went on a field trip to their facilities last year, and Elmer Kidd, their production manager, really knows what he’s doing; he told me when he was younger, he could do thousands of grafts in a day). You should also identify what pear variety you have because there is graft incompatibility between some varieties, and grafts between these varieties will not heal properly.

      If you don’t care for a rootstock (which basically means you’re giving up disease resistance and any control over the size of the tree), then you can take a 6-8 inch branch cutting from your tree, strip the lower 1-2 inches of the bark (be sure to leave the green layer underneath though, this is the part where the plant cells actually divide so they’re needed to form roots), dip them with some rooting hormones (or don’t, they just increase success rate), and plant it into some grow media, potting mix, or soil. Whatever you plant it in, make sure it’s kept moist, but the plants will still need air to form roots, also, if you’re planting them in the soil, they may require some treatment to make sure fungal root diseases don’t develop along with some covering to keep the humidity high. You also have the option of air layering (http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/extension/ornamentals/airlayer/airlayer.html) to get new pear trees. Which ever way you chose to propagate your tree, you should do it during the first half of the growing season before the tree begins to fruit then harden off for the winter because this ensures that the branches used for these propagation methods will have the resources to produce roots. Otherwise, during the flowering stage, all the plant’s resources are going towards the flower, and then the plant diverts its resources to the trunk and roots to overwinter.

    • Dave G permalink

      Assuming your pear tree has a low-growing branch, have you considered ground layering? It may take a couple of years, but it’s the easiest approach when you want to propagate only a few trees.
      Be sure to prune heavily when transplanting (during the late dormant season).

  2. Greetings…

    I really liked the little info on the grafting… most I was already aware of, but liked anyway. I was really surprised the first time I heard this info, and feel that more people would like horticulture if they knew there was more to it than meets the eye.

    • Meg permalink

      Thanks for stopping by & reading, Gordon! I agree, I wish more people understood the amazing handiwork that goes into successful horticulture.

      To protect your privacy, I removed your personal contact info from your original comment. We do still have it, though, so if any info on your account needs to be updated, we’ll be sure to do that for you! :)

  3. R.H.Smith permalink

    I have planted avocado seeds for several(20+) years. Many have produced good size fruit. Many have been non-producers. I plant them along the fence row. If they produce it’s great. They just need water for the first year.

    Can you tell me about any book on grafting with well illistrated graphics to help in the proper method of grafting? Most I have seen are similar to your offering(rather limited).
    RHS

    • R.H. Smith, I don’t know any book off-hand that gives the kind of detail you’re looking for on grafting. Maybe someone else reading this post or the comments knows of such a book? If I find something, I will be sure to get back to you!

      In the meantime, I might suggest checking with your library or looking to see if your area has any events going on. Some places offer grafting classes and they might provide materials as well.

    • Kris permalink

      I would suggest looking into local groups. I know when we lived in California there was the Rare Fruit Growers association that came into our high school and brought the root stock and scion and showed our students how to graft apple trees, then let them keep their tree! Great experience!

    • Peter permalink

      http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/grafting.html

      This link will show you the common methods of grafting, but it doesn’t really explain the idea behind grafting. To understand why grafting works, you need to know how a cell grows and reproduce, and I’d suggest starting off with learning about the meristem and vascular cambium.

      I’d recommend using your local library to look for plant propagation books, which will usually discuss grafting. For my plant propagation class, I had to use Hartmann & Kester’s Plant Propagation: Principles and Practices (8th edition), and I personally liked it, although I haven’t really read any other plant propagation textbooks so I don’t know if it’s the best out there.

    • Jack Graton permalink

      Hi, you can try: “The Grafter’s Handbook” by R.J. Garner, which I find to be clear, thorough, (I’ve found) very useful for avocado, etc. You can also get info from: http://www.avocadosource.com/
      Jack G.

    • John Dyson permalink

      I have a great book called Simple Propagation: A Book of Instructions for Propagation by Seed, Division, Layering, Cuttings, Budding, and Grafting. It was written by Noel J. Prockter and has many b/w photos and sketches. A check on Amazon.com shows that this book is quite old (I bought mine in 1982, and it is copyright 1976) and Amazon indicates that the first edition may have come out as early as in 1951. Nevertheless, it is my go-to book for the theory and sketches for layering, cuttings, and grafting.

  4. The Missouri Nut Growers Association will hold two grafting sessions in early May. The one near Collins MO is on the 5th and the one outside Washington MO is on the 8th of May. See http://www.missourinutgrowers.org for more information. Check the site after April 1 for added details.

    • Barb, how great! Those events are always so educational. Thank you for sharing this. I sent out a Tweet about it to our local Twitter followers. :)

  5. Pat permalink

    I apply epsom salt on drip line of my fruiting, or flowering trees to help them to bloom. If you buy it in garden centers it will have direction on how much to put on plants or trees. Epsom salt is a mineral I guess the trees need. I know it will cause the tress to bloom more but this year I am going to see if it will cause the trees to hold the blooms. I trimmed by meyer lemon tree back in feb. and it is full of blooms already and has small lemons on it. Just a suggestion.

    • Pat – excellent advice! I was going to mention that the lemon plant enjoys a little epsom salt application, but you beat me to it. ;)

  6. Pat permalink

    I just planted my first apple trees this week and I am anxious to see if they will do well here in the southeast Texas.
    I for to say my satsuma and orange trees are blooming like crazy also.
    I love working with plants and learning about them and I have been wanting to try the grafting but never had the nerve to. lol

    • Pat I bet Texas has some grafting events once in a while – you should attend one and tackle the grafting beast! :)

  7. Stan permalink

    Nearly 30 years ago I purchased some product from Stark and have sinced moved. I had great success. We are moving into a newly built home and have started over again. I have received multiple magazines from different nurseries but think we will stick with Stark. Thanks for the years of quality.

    • Stan, than *you* for growing with us. It’s a pleasure to supply the quality product you’ve had such success with over the years. Here’s to many more! :)

  8. Leslie's Farm permalink

    I have had the same experience. In most of the places I have lived in the past 25 years, there are wonderful Stark fruit trees. I have returned to spy on some of my past plantings and even in the case of benign neglect, I saw beautiful trees – some dripping with fruit! However, when I moved to Texas I thought long and hard about finding a local supplier. After I checked out what I could find I decided to stay in my comfort zone, order from Stark and see if the trees could handle the often harsh climate of Central Texas. To add to their test their first year was the already legendary, worst drought in 50 years. I am happy to say that my little green friends from Missouri came through it like the excellent stock that they are. AMAZING! Oh, they suffered like everything did, but they seem quite normal for new transplants starting their second year. One of them, the Granny Smith, never went dormant, but I learned that mature trees of this variety often produce twice down here. And, it has been a very strange Winter.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, Leslie. The terrible heat and drought (and fires) in Texas and Oklahoma last year devastated an unthinkable amount of the local trees, so it is touching to hear your young fruit trees survived! :)

  9. skip kemp permalink

    I noticed that the original graft on three walnut trees I recently purchased was pruned off and a side branch that budded off the original scion was allowed to become the main “trunk”. All three trees were done this way.

    What’s the purpose of pruning off the original grafted scion and allowing an axial bud to become the trunk?

    • Hi there, Skip! Are these walnut trees you got from us? I can’t really speak for another nursery’s methods but, when we graft our walnut scions onto their rootstock, that bud you are seeing is actually the scion that will become your walnut tree. The part that might appear to have been pruned off was not the original grafted scion and it won’t even be noticeable once the tree gets older. :)

  10. daniel permalink

    i have a meyers lemon tree that produces very well. I grew several from the seeds this past summer and am wondering if the trees from the seeds will produce lemons or if they need to be grafted. I have been wanting to try grafting for a long time. If grafting is needed… what is a good root stock to use? I live in southeast texas,

    • Many types of citrus trees are known for seeds coming true to type, so the lemon seeds you planted may fruit and share traits of the parent Meyer lemon fruit; however, your Meyer lemon tree was more than likely grafted, and it benefits from this for 2 main reasons:

      1. The trees that grow from seed may take many, many years to mature and establish as trees before they are ready to bloom or set their first fruit crops. Grafted trees tend to produce much sooner than seedlings.

      2. The tree’s size is determined by the rootstock it is grafted to. Growing a tree from seed means the tree will try to grow to its standard height rather than being kept more manageable by a dwarfing rootstock. Also, some types of citrus trees can be susceptible to diseases in certain areas, so they are commonly grafted onto sour orange rootstocks for increased resistance.

      If you are able to find rootstocks in your area, sour orange would be a common one to use. Many varieties require that you have propagation rights before grafting etc., so you might want to do some research. If you can find a source for rootstocks, they should have more information on this matter.

    • Matt permalink

      If you are able to grow citrus from seed it is likely they are apomictic, and true to type. This is usually more obvious when there are a number seedlings that seem to appear from one seed. There is no reason why you couldn’t use your own seed grown plants as a rootstock and your Meyer lemon as the budwood to ensure that you are obtaining the variety you are interested in.

  11. Patrick White permalink

    I have purchased Stark fruit and nut trees for over 30 years. Last year I left my home in Idaho where I had over 40 Stark fruit and nut trees for my new home in Alaska. My question – I would like to grow Honeycrisp apples in my high tunnel. Do you think I would be successful with a two layer permaculture approach with the rootstock used by Stark or should I try to find a rootstock which is more cold hardy. I live on the Kenai Penninsula in zone 4b. I also intend on growing North Star pie cherries in the high tunnel and three of your cold hardy peaches in containers which I will move inside for the winter.

    • Our Honeycrisp rootstock (and the tree) is cold-hardy enough for your planting scenario, Patrick! We have two suggestions though: Just to be safe, you can plant the trees a couple of inches deeper than normal. Also, opt for the semi-dwarf sized tree. Since Honeycrisp is not a vigorous grower, and is naturally smaller than other varieties, a semi-dwarf Honeycrisp tree isn’t going to get as large as other semi-dwarf apple trees would. It would remain in what we consider the “dwarf” range. The reason we suggest this is that the dwarf rootstock would probably not be ideal for your planting situation.

  12. Seth permalink

    Hello,
    I purchased two Intrepid peaches this past year along with a couple of apple trees from Stark Bros and have been really pleased with all of them. I have ordered a blushing star and am considering a contender for this spring. I am doing some research on winter hardiness relating to the rootstock of peaches and was wondering if you could tell me the rootstock used for your hardy variety of peaches? Thank you.

    • Hi Seth! The rootstock Stark Bro’s uses for our dwarf peach trees is Peach Redleaf (a Tennessee Natural type) and Lovell rootstock for our standard trees. Both are moderately cold hardy rootstocks. I hope this helps!

      • Seth permalink

        Thank you, Sarah for the prompt reply and information. It was -23 *F here this morning, the coldest it’s been in years, so it will certainly be a good test for my young peach trees.

  13. kevin permalink

    Patrick, growing Honeycrisp in a tunnel will work however you also should know it is a difficult to grow well. Honecrisp has many problems. My Honeycrisp grows fine and produces large crisp juict fruit but lacks in flavor, they are very bland. I have applied copius amounts of calcium in an attempt to sweeten the flavor and still no luck. Honeycrisp is very susceptible to bitter pit which is caused by a lack of calcium. I would recommend Honey Gold and or Gold Rush, both perform well and delicious fruit. I am in Alaska as well and have a Hi Tunnel

  14. Jerry permalink

    I bought 3 semidwarf pie cherry trees of different varieties from Stark last year and none of them made it through the winter in Atlanta. Stark is replacing the trees this year and we’ll try again. it is supposed to be a pretty cold winter here and I am wondering if the trees would benefit from being started in a pot and allowing the root structure to develop before exposing them to the cold. what do you think?

    • If you’re expecting a harsh winter again, it certainly wouldn’t harm your trees to start them in containers and then plant them in the spring after the threat of frost has passed.

      Since the trees we ship are dormant, they are already shut down for winter. As long as their roots are protected and insulation is provided, the trees should be able to withstand an Atlanta winter. Most fruit trees were killed by the fickle spring rather than the harsh winter this past year, but it’s best to play it safe!

      Here are some tips on harsh-winter protection (mulching and insulation) that should be able to help you protect your trees in years to come:
      http://www.starkbros.com/blog/protecting-fruit-trees-in-winter/

  15. Tony permalink

    My first experience with Stark Brothers was back in the ’70s (a Burbank Elberta-fantastic peach) and have been ordering trees and grapes from you ever since. I recently discovered what appears to be a volunteer fig on a back slope. This is its first year so I don’t know what it will produce-if anything. Since figs don’t blossom in the general sense of the word, is it likely to produce acceptable fruit? I have done some grafting in the past and have an elderly friend who has been doing it all his life, but never a fig. My Kadota had been grafted when I bought it from a local nursery, so I know that it is being done. There is a milky substance (sap?) that appears when you cut into a fig tree. Because of this, is there any special considerations when grafting or budding a fig? Which would be a better approach?
    Thanks, Tony

    • I’m curious what will come of the volunteer fig tree you have growing there! Unfortunately, there is no real way of knowing what to expect until the tree bears fruit. Fortunately, fig trees tend to be self-pollinating so you won’t need another tree nearby to help it along!

      For the most part, I believe fig trees are propagated from rooted cuttings rather than from grafting because they root so easily. Here’s what I found from Alabama’s cooperative extension:
      http://www.aces.edu/counties/StClair/files/NRFigPropagationGlover.pdf

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