This "Living History" Project at Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area Required Some Very Sharp Instruments

Pruning historic apple trees

Pruning one of the historic apple trees at the Roberts Farm in Delaware Water Gap NRA. NPS photo.

The term "living history" is often applied to programs using costumed interpreters, but it can also have another, more literal application: historic orchards. A recent project at Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area used some sharp instruments to apply some tender loving pruning to historic apple trees in the park.

The work was performed during the second week in February by a group of arborists and trainees from throughout the National Park Service. Three sites with historic apple trees in the New Jersey portion of the park were selected for pruning maintenance.

The first was the historic Roberts Farm orchard in Montague. According to a 1992 study by Dr. William Coli from the University of Massachusetts’ Cooperative Extension, this is believed to be the oldest orchard in the National Park System.

At the time of that study, some of the surviving trees were estimated to be over 200 years old. Since then most of the original trees have blown over and died, but there's good news: steps had already been taken to preserve the strain of fruit from the original trees.

Over the past ten years scions (shoots from one year’s growth) from all of the surviving trees were grafted onto rootstock and the resulting saplings were planted in the original orchard. Only one apple variety has been identified so far, a Newtown Pippin—a variety dating back to 1661. All apple varieties in the orchard will eventually be identified when the saplings bear fruit.

The two additional orchard sites in the park received attention during the recent project: trees at the Dodd House (Newtown Spitzenburg and Rhode Island Greening varieties) and one massive apple tree of an unknown variety near the Dingmans Bridge.

A member of the project team points out that "Proper pruning is essential for the continued survival and vigor of the trees. Pruning fruit trees promotes vigor, helps to balance the trees as they grow, and stimulates new growth. Doing so also helps amplify this country’s history."

Susan Dolan is a historical landscape architect and the author of Fruitful Legacy, published last year by the National Park Service. She writes that "the history of orchard fruit growing in the United States is as rich and complex as the country’s history of human settlement and development.”

“Cultural landscape preservation is valuable because it sustains rare heirloom plant varieties,” she said. “A preserved historic orchard is not only significant in terms of agricultural biodiversity conservation, it also gives us a glimpse into an 1800s landscape.”

According to NPS spokesperson, "Reestablishing and maintaining historic fruit trees throughout the NPS represents an historic milestone in the preservation of the cultural heritage of the United States." The team recently completed maintenance work at historic orchards in Gettysburg National Military Park and the adjacent Eisenhower National Historic Site; additional pruning is also planned for trees at Adams National Historic Park."

Coordination and funding for the project came from the Service’s Frederick Law Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation in Brookline, Massachusetts. The Center's staff notes,

"The National Park Service is one of the principal stewards of historic orchards in the United States. Many of these orchards date from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries and reflect important social trends of the country such as the migration and settlement patterns of immigrants, the development of commercial agriculture, and the growth of rural and urban economies."

"Many of the orchards at national parks have direct associations with important people or events that shaped the history of our country, such as the Peach Orchard at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. Additionally, historic orchards in national parks often contain rare or unusual fruit varieties that may be the only surviving examples of their type."

"As repositories of great genetic variety, these historic orchards are important reservoirs of agricultural biodiversity. There is an urgent need to document historic orchards, determine their horticultural value, develop management objectives, and build the capacity of parks to effectively protect, preserve, and maintain these important resources."

"The Olmsted Center is working with partners to initiate a nationwide program to help property managers provide good stewardship for their historic orchards."

Historic orchards in several other parks have been featured in the Traveler, including San Juan Island National Historical Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Gettysburg National Military Park, and Yosemite National Park.