Have you ever wondered why you can’t just pull out the seeds from an apple at the store, plant them, and grow trees that yield the same exact apples you originally took the seeds from? To answer this, we’ll address the history contained in seeds as well as the benefits of planting and growing grafted trees.
We’ll use apple trees for example here. Most apple trees are not self-fertile; they need another apple variety to pollinate the blossoms and produce fruit.
So, if you had a Honeycrisp™ apple tree, you would need a variety like the Golden Delicious apple tree to cross-pollinate it. From one tree to the other, the male flower’s genetic material pollinates the female flower (usually helped by bees, wind, etc.). The end result is fruit development in mature apple trees.
This is called “sexual reproduction” in trees. And, even if a tree is considered to be self-pollinating, it’s still receptive of other pollen — so the seeds of its fruit will contain a family history of generations of trees.
The combined genetic material of a tree is in the seeds, not the fruit. This is how cross-pollination can occur in your Honeycrisp apple tree and not affect the color or appearance of the apples. The seeds, however, carry the traits of the tree’s pollination partner (Golden Delicious, in the example above), plus the genetic history of all past generations of both trees. So, If you were to plant a Honeycrisp apple’s seed, the resulting apple tree could display characteristics from anywhere in its lineage. It will not be a true Honeycrisp apple tree or bear true Honeycrisp apples.
There are exceptions, like certain citrus trees, but most seed-grown fruit and nut trees (seedlings) are unreliable if the goal is consistency. Even when deliberate crosses are made by plant breeders, the results in the offspring are unpredictable. Breeders select the most promising characteristics from parent plants and allow them to cross-pollinate. Then the resulting fruit’s history-containing seeds are harvested and planted to grow the next generation of trees. These trees bear fruit that (hopefully) outperforms the parents. It is said that the late great plant wizard Luther Burbank made 700 deliberate crosses of Orange Quince and Portugal Quince just to produce the Van Deman Quince!
Then there are grafted fruit trees. Grafting involves taking a scion or bud chip* cut from the desired parent tree (say, a true-to-name Honeycrisp Apple tree) and literally placing it onto another tree or a compatible rootstock. The grafting piece (scion) and the rootstock are calloused, or knitted, together as it heals. All suckers are removed from the rootstock, and the Honeycrisp scion is allowed to grow into the new tree, thus maintaining its true 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 Stark Bro’s trees are either propagated through grafting — by splicing the scion and rootstock together — or through budding a single vegetative bud into the side of the rootstock and wrapping it with cellophane tape until it heals. The results of grafting and budding are the same.
So what’s the practical difference between a grafted tree and a seed-grown tree?
In short, you really don’t know with certainty what the outcome will be with a seed-grown tree.
A grafted tree is consistent, with a reliable history of characteristics. It has a track record!
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!