Preserve Diversity and Provide Links to the Past
When Biological Science Technician Robert Goughnour came to work at the Washington State University Vancouver Extension in 2000, his job was researching apple maggots and cherry fruit flies in collaboration with the USDA Agricultural Research Foundation. The goal of his research was to find out what kinds of plants and trees fruit flies lay their eggs in – vital information for Washington apple and cherry farmers.
As Goughnour traveled into the fields around Clark, Skamania and Cowlitz counties, he often found himself at old homesteads where he discovered some unusual varieties of apple trees. Research into the history of apples revealed, not surprisingly, that there were many more varieties grown in the 1800s than there are now. An interest in anthropology and archeology fueled Goughnour’s desire to save these heritage trees for future generations.
“We still don’t know what some of the varieties are because it’s so costly to find out,” Goughnour said. “And, when these trees are gone, they’re gone.”
Historic trees get a new future
With the help of Blair Wolfley, former WSU Extension District Director and current 78th Street Heritage Farm manager, and other members of the Master Gardener Foundation, Goughnour formed a committee to begin plans for a heritage orchard in 2003.
The WSU Heritage Orchard got off the ground with a grant from the Master Gardener Foundation to purchase tools and root stock for the original tree grafts. They were given permission to use space at the WSU Heritage Site on the Salmon Creek campus, and in 2004, the WSU Heritage Orchard was dedicated.
According to Goughnour (pictured), several well-known community members have supported the WSU Heritage Orchard, including former educator and state legislator, Al Bauer, who contributed cuttings from two trees from his property originating in the 1920s, and Clark County Commissioner Mark Boldt.
The WSU Heritage Orchard is planted along a public walking trail that winds through the Heritage Site. The orchard was recently moved and replanted due to a salmon preservation project on the nearby banks of Mill Creek. According to John Benson from WSU facilities operations and a Clark County Master Gardener, invasive reed canary grass and Himalayan blackberry bushes were removed from along the creek. Native riparian plants were then introduced to address soil erosion and other factors contributing to the decline of salmon populations in recent years.
“The heritage orchard is a living repository,” Benson said, “It’s a part of preserving the history of the area, and it adds interest on the walking trail.”
There are currently 50 to 60 heritage apple and pear trees planted in the WSU Heritage Orchard. They bear modest tags stating their type and which pioneer homestead they came from (see sidebar). Goughnour says there’s room to expand the orchard at this site, and he hopes to someday replace the tags with plaques to identify the tree type and its origin. The trees in the orchard are intentionally low maintenance. The cuttings were grafted onto semi-dwarf root stock, so they’ll grow only about eight to 10 feet tall. The most mature trees in the orchards are six years old and just now beginning to bear fruit.
Goughnour’s vision for the future of the WSU Heritage Orchard has evolved beyond the preservation of fruit trees. There are several lilacs near the old homestead ruins at the WSU Heritage Site that he’d like to see moved to the orchard. He imagines adding heirloom flowers and other perennials someday as well.
A site for research and demonstration
Extra cuttings from WSU Heritage Orchard were planted in a small orchard at the 78th Street Heritage Farm, where Goughnour conducts his fruit fly research. This became the Experimental and Heritage Orchard where Goughnour also grows ornamental shrubs, currants, grapes, blueberries and cherry trees among the heritage trees. Many of these come from the same pioneer homesteads as the heritage apple and pear trees.
“This not only utilizes the space between the trees but allows me to continue my research on how fruit flies interact with different shrubs and fruit bearing plants,” Goughnour explained.
There is currently no walking trail at the Experimental and Heritage Orchard, but it can be viewed by appointment. The WSU Vancouver Extension also offers several public workshops on site. Goughnour hopes that when his research is finished, the Experimental and Heritage Orchard will continue to be utilized as a demonstration site for backyard growers.
Washington State University Heritage Orchard
WSU Vancouver Barn at Salmon Creek Avenue, Vancouver
The WSU Heritage Orchard is a repository of heritage fruit trees from area pioneer homesteads. An on-site walking trail is open daily, dawn to dusk.
Experimental and Heritage Orchard
WSU Clark County Extension / 78th Street Heritage Farm
1919 N.E. 78th St., Vancouver
The Experimental and Heritage Orchard contains heritage fruit trees from pioneer homesteads, and other shrubs, bushes and trees for demonstration and research. It is open weekdays by appointment.