Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Apples and Unintended Consequences

“It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man.”
--Henry David Thoreau

There are several important annual events in my backyard. When will the first hummingbird show up at the feeder I put out? When will the ornamental grasses start to grow? When will the house wrens leave the nest box? When will I have enough apples to make apple sauce?

I got the answers to the last two questions on the same day. I discovered the house wren young had left the box and were following their parents around the yard, calling to be fed while being shown how to do it themselves.

That same morning I realized there was not one apple left in the tree. No apple sauce this year.

Apple tree leaves (Margo D. Beller)
This apple tree is peculiar. While most apple trees produce their fruits in the summer going into autumn, this one flowers in the spring and starts producing fruits in June. I don't spray the trees so when I pick these apples (either from the tree or whole ones that are dropped to the ground) I always have to cut them open and cut away the not-so-good stuff.

As a friend of mine once said, the only thing worse than biting into an apple and finding a worm is finding half a worm.

Like birds and people, trees want to survive and perpetuate the species. To do that, the trees fruit. The tree draws insects with flowers. When apples form from the pollinated flower, other insects burrow into them, which in turn draws the birds. In summer, squirrels will climb into the tree to take an apple for the sweet moisture. What they drop will be eaten by deer unless I get to them first.

The seeds from all this eaten fruit will be, to be polite, disseminated all over the place.

Many apple varieties aren't grown from seed but from grafts. That doesn't stop the plant from flowering and fruiting.
Apple from my tree (Margo D. Beller)

This particular apple tree's fruits are sweet and, if allowed to fully ripen, grow to be medium sized and red. I showed one to the head of a local farm market and he said it was a macintosh variety, although not like the type you can buy in grocers.

I rarely get apples fully sized and red because the squirrels start going after them when they are yellow and big enough for them to take a bite. 

When MH and I bought the property decades ago, there were five apple trees, a blueberry bush and a cherry tree.

The cherry tree died of rot and was removed. The blueberry bush had to be removed when we had foundation work done on the house. The smallest of the five apple trees was literally rubbed to death by bucks sharpening their antlers, scraping off all the protective bark. Of the remaining apples trees, we removed one because it got so big we could not get at the fruit until it hit the ground with a splat, at which time the deer would get it.

Two more trees, whose apples were yellow-green, hard and not particularly sweet, were removed because they were too prolific and there was no way I could deal with all those apples drawing the deer, which pooped all over the yard. The blue spruce and the dogwood we put in as replacements don't interest the deer but they do provide shelter for birds.

We now have the one apple and that is still a challenge. For one thing, there's the wren box hanging from one branch. The young growing too big to allow their parents inside to feed them seems to coincide with when the apples start getting large enough to interest the squirrels. The constant visits stress the parent wrens.

It is no surprise that the parents are very eager to get their brood out of the box and flying elsewhere just around the time I start picking apples. I rarely see a second wren family at the box because of all the activity.

Usually in late June or early July I go out in the early morning and pick up all the apples either dropped by the squirrels or by the tree. It takes a lot of energy to produce an apple so the sooner the tree can drop the fruit the better, particularly when hot summers and low rain can weaken the tree. Self-preservation rules.

I throw any chewed apples into a corner or the yard and take the whole ones inside for later processing into sauce. Squirrels and birds are messy eaters, and unless I clean up there would be much more deer mess under the tree than there already is.

Unlike the two trees that were prolific each year, with this tree I'm not always assured of a large crop. Several years ago we had the tree pruned. The following spring, it flowered prolifically and produced a bumper crop to make up for what it lost in the pruning. Quarts of apple sauce for the freezer to last me into the winter months.

House wren box in apple tree (Margo D. Beller)
This spring, however, either because of last year's bounty or the relatively mild winter or the lack of rain or the increase in mad-made pollution, there were few flowers. Few flowers = few fruit. I've managed to get a few apples here and there, not enough for sauce but enough to put into pancakes. I went outside on a Tuesday and picked one relatively large apple just so the squirrels didn't get it.

The next day, I discovered an empty wren box and an empty tree.

While the lack of apples means less work for me, it creates some unintended consequences.

Deer that were expecting apples look for other sources of food - such as what bits of flowers and plants they can get at through my deer netting. Squirrels that used apples as a source of moisture are now hitting the water dishes I have out for the birds. Birds that were using the apples for moisture or to pick off the insects now have to find another food source.

However, there is the chance a second house wren will discover the box, start singing his territorial song and draw a mate to create a second brood. That would more than make up for the loss of apples.

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