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The Importance of Fruit Tree Pollination

by Elmer on 04/18/2012
Bee Pollinating an Apple Blossom

Let me tell you about the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees” — that tune would date some of us who were teens in the 60′s!

When you think about it, there have been a staggering number of important advances over the last 100 years in travel, appliances and communication. The field of gardening and growing has also seen some significant advances in our increasing knowledge and understanding of plants. Although there are varieties of fruit trees that were grown and named hundreds of years ago, there was still a great lack of understanding. If we knew then what we know now, we would be much further down the road of fruit production.

One of these significant developments has been learning more about today’s topic — the importance of fruit tree pollination.

What is ‘Fruit Tree Pollination’?

Fruit tree pollination equates to sexual reproduction and fruit development. Without pollination, fruit trees would not bear fruit. After pollination, the pollen germinates once it’s transferred from the stamen (male) to the pistil (female). This results in fertilization*, and the seed develops. Bees play a huge role in the process!

*not to be confused with fertilizers, which replenish soil nutrients to feed the trees

Fruit trees fit into the following categories:

  1. Self-Pollinating — trees that do not need another to complete the pollination process. Most apricotsnectarines, peaches and sour cherries are typical examples of self-pollinating trees.
  2. Requiring a Pollinator — trees that need to be pollinated by another variety of tree. Most apples, pears, plums and sweet cherries are typical examples of this type of tree.

Bee on Apple King Bloom

It’s also good to know that while some trees are self-pollinating, they might have greater success when they are cross-pollinated with another. For optimal results from fruit tree pollination, I recommend setting up a pollinating scheme. Here are a few things to remember:

  • Plant at least two compatible-pollen varieties within 50 feet of one another. Pollination will still occur if trees are planted closer together, and may even occur between trees planted farther apart than this, but, for ideal pollination, a 50-foot distance between trees is good to aim for.
  • Make sure you plant varieties that bloom in the same season. Our fruit trees page lists a few of the most recommended pollinators for each specific variety, while keeping in mind bloom times, so that choosing a pollinator for the variety you’re interested in is an easy task.
  • The key to proper fruit tree pollination is timing. Any early-season variety will pollinate another early-season variety, and the same holds true for mid- and late-season varieties. On average, the bloom time for most compatible trees will overlap enough for pollination, but, if you’re only planting 2 trees, it’s best to plant trees that will bloom at the same time.

One more thing to note when dealing with the pollination of fruit trees, particularly apple trees, is the difference between diploids and triploids:

  • Diploids have two sets of chromosomes — one from each parent — and are able to pollinate other trees. Most fruit tree varieties fall into this category.
  • Triploids have an extra set of chromosomes that make them “pollen sterile”, meaning that they can be pollinated to produce fruit, but they cannot properly pollinate another tree. Jonagold and Starkspur® Winesap apple trees are two examples of triploid apple trees.

Apple BlossomsMore triploid apple varieties:

There are several other important factors that go into successful fruit-tree growing, and none of them are really hard to understand. We could discuss proper light, location, pruning, spraying, and many other aspects essential to fruit growing; however, without fruit tree pollination, they’re all secondary discussions! So make sure your trees and plants are properly pollinated to ensure successful fruit-growing.

For additional information, visit our Growing Guides to read more articles, plant manuals, and watch helpful videos.

Topics → Planting & Growing, Tips

26 Comments

  1. Phil McLean permalink

    I had just come in from looking at my starkrimson cherry tree when I read your article. For the 3rd year in a row, my tree ahs 2 cherries on it. The tree is 7 feet tall and beautiful, but no fruit. What tree do I need to get to pollinate my tree?
    The write up for the tree said I only need one tree to have lots of fruit, but that must not be quite true. Thanks, Phil

    • Hi Phil! How old is your cherry tree? Sweet cherries tend to take 4-7 years before they begin bearing regularly.

      Any other sweet cherry should cross-pollinate the Starkrimson® Sweet Cherry but, since it is producing some fruit by itself, having another pollinator nearby may not be a solution. Bees and other pollination-helping insects are crucial for fruit-production so be sure your trees are not being sprayed during their bloom time (by you or a neighbor spraying their trees nearby). Also, if frost is zapping the sensitive blooms on your tree, it will affect the fruit production.

  2. Aaron Martin permalink

    For a couple of years I have had the problem Nectria Twig Blight. I have been very careful to prune away the infected parts. Are you aware of any way to control this problem. (Some of our neighbors have seen it also.)

    • Hello Aaron! For control of Nectria Twig Blight, currently, simply continuing to prune out the infected limbs is recommended. The fungal disease will be able to carry over and reinfect the trees if their planting site is not kept clean and if the pruned-off limbs are not disposed of. I would encourage your neighbors to also be sure to prune back their diseased limbs, keep their planting sites clear of debris (old leaves, twigs, fruit, etc.) for better control of Nectria Twig Blight in your area.

  3. Marilynne VenJohn permalink

    I bought a Stella cherry from you years ago. I have picked over a 100 lbs of cherries from it many times. Several people told me I couldn”t raise one in Ks. Fooled them

    • Congratulations on your fruit tree’s success, Marilynne! I am glad to hear it is such a prolific cherry-producer for you. :)

  4. Great article, Elmer. Tells all one needs to know about pollinating Apple Trees in one place. Thank you.

  5. I bought a Honeycrisp apple tree on a gamble that the neighbor’s unknown variety apple tree (probably Jonathan) will pollinate it (when my tree grows up). What would be a good apple in zone 5 that would compliment my Honeycrisp (that could be a semi-dwarf)?

  6. Joe permalink

    Really great article Elmer. I learned a lot!

  7. john permalink

    Elmer
    Great resource article!
    I bought a house four years ago with an established 17 year old sour cherry tree. The past two years I had abundant crop and every 4th of July I would harvest so many I had to give some away! After baking 7 pies and freezing gallon bags we still had plenty to share. This year though, flowered in spring and no evidence of any fruit at all, very wierd. Is this a bee colony collapse or mild midwestern winter? Tree looks healthy, I put down tree spikes last fall and the spring made beautiful white flowers.
    Fingers crossed for next year!

    • What a wonderful treasure on your property, John! This year has been hard on many fruit trees and their productivity, so it is more than likely attributed to the weather rather than colony collapse. Our fingers are crossed for next year as well! We’d love to see pictures sometime of your tree and its fruit crop. :)

  8. Jen permalink

    In order to properly pollinate, what kind of pollinator tree ratio is needed? i.e. If I want to grow several sauce apple trees and Granny Smith’s are suggested to pollinate, do I need an equal # of both? 1 out of 4 so they each neighbor the pollinator tree?

    • If I understand your question correctly, Jen, if you’re growing a total of 4 trees and 1 happens to be your Granny Smith apple tree for pollination of the sauce apples, this will work. As long as you’re not trying to use 1 Granny Smith to pollinate a larger number, like 10+ sauce apple trees, you should be fine. :)

  9. Dorothy Lee permalink

    I am looking at apple trees to purchase and see comments about crabapples as pollinators. I have two very productive crabs with slightly different bloom times (one starts about 2 weeks after the other usually April). I also have two very old apples which produce fruit in Sept. There is about 100′ between each of the crabs and the apples.
    1) Will any of these act as pollinators for semi-dwarf apples
    2) Would I need to plant the new apple closer to (which one?) or would central to the group work?
    If it matters, I am looking at Sept ripening times of good canning / pie apples with some “storage”time

    • Great questions, Dorothy! Crabapples do make excellent sources of pollination for regular apple tree varieties. The bloom times typically overlap those of other apple trees, including semi-dwarf apples you opt to plant nearby.

      An ideal distance between pollinators is 50′ from one to the next, but pollination has been known to occur between trees planted even up to a quarter-mile apart. If your semi-dwarf apples are planted between the crabapples, then that works just fine!

      Cortland apple ripens in September (zone 5/6), is great for pies, fresh-eating, and cider.
      Starkrimson® Gala apple ripens in early September and is a good keeper (storage), ideal for fresh-eating and baking.
      Stark® Jon-A-Red® Jonathan apple ripens in mid-September and is great for candied apples and pies.
      CrimsonCrisp™ apple is a disease-resistant tree, a great keeper, and ideal for fresh-eating.
      Blondee® apple is a yellow apple that ripens in early September and happens to be an excellent keeper, also great for fresh-eating and desserts.
      Ben Davis apple is an old-fashioned variety that ripens in late September, keeps very well, and is firm, so it’s good for fresh-eating and baking as well.

  10. George Tiller permalink

    Hi, On the subject of Fruit Trees. If I plant a Peach, Pear and Nectarine will they polinate each other ?

    • Hi George! When you’re talking about pollination, it’s best to stick with like-species: Nectarine trees pollinate nectarine trees (and are actually self-pollinating*), peaches pollinate other peaches (and are actually self-pollinating*), and pears pollinate other pears.

      *Self-pollinating — and sometimes referred to as “self-fertile” — fruit trees and plants can produce fruit by themselves, without requiring another variety nearby for cross-pollination.

      In your given scenario, you should be able to get fruit from one peach tree and one nectarine tree, but your pear tree will most likely need another different variety for pollination to produce fruit.

      Exceptions:
      Stark® Hal-Berta Giant™ Peach — this needs another different peach variety for a pollinator
      Stark® Honeysweet Pear — this pear tree is self-pollinating

  11. belinda fouts permalink

    My step dad passed on and left my brother his place which has an Orchard on it one by one his apple and pear trees are dying and we aren’t sure why

    • My condolences, Belinda. :(

      As for the fruit trees… it’s difficult to determine what is going on with them without at least seeing them. If you have any photos of the trees to share with us and more details of what’s going on with them and why you think they’re dying, it could help! You might also consider contacting the local County Extension service nearest to where the orchard is located. They’re experts who are local to the area and would be able to come out and assess the situation with the pear and apple trees, in the event that we are unable to determine a cause or solution by any further details you can provide. I look forward to hearing from you!

  12. Jerry permalink

    I have two apple trees in planters on a rooftop in NYC. One is a Macoun and the other is a Pippin, and both are 4 years old. I am hoping for blossoms and fruit next year. One thing I am wondering about is whether they will blossom at around the same time so that they can cross pollinate each other? I would be grateful for any advice you can offer on this. Thanks.

    • Macoun is a mid-season bloomer that happens to overlap several early season varieties and other mid-season blooming varieties as well. Since there are several varieties of apple that go by “Pippin” I’m not sure which one you have, but if it’s Cox’s Orange Pippin, that variety is also a mid-season bloomer – so your trees should pollinate one another!

      You can check for common apple variety compatibility on apple pollination charts like this one here:
      http://www.acnursery.com/apple_pollinizer.pdf

  13. Jerry permalink

    I purchased the Pippin from JE Miller Nurseries, and it is marked on the tag as “DF107 C.O. Pippin Apple”. Does this provide sufficient information to determine if it will cross pollinate with the Macoun? Unfortunately, I cannot find a copy of my original order form, so I do not have more information on the type of Pippin tree that I have. Thanks.

    • The tree you ordered from Miller should be a Cox’s Orange Pippin apple, which blooms mid-season, so it does cross-pollinate with the mid-season blooming Macoun apple. Your trees’ pollination needs should be covered, Jerry! :)

  14. Jason permalink

    From your website I see that Honeycrisp and Cox Orange Pippin both like to be cross-pollinated by Golden Delicious. If I wanted to buy 2 Honeycrisp and 2 Orange Pippin trees, how many Golden Delicious should I buy to make sure everything works out? Would one be enough? Thanks.

    • One Golden Delicious apple tree would be able to pollinate the two Honeycrisps and two Cox’s Orange Pippins – as long as they’re planted within 50 feet* of one another. Cox Orange Pippin and Honeycrisp will have overlapping bloom times as well, so the three of those varieties all planted together will provide sufficient pollen sources across the five trees! :)

      *the ideal distance for pollination to take place, although things still tend to get pollinated even if they are closer or slightly further apart

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