Historic Pear Trees and a Pig are Part of the Story at this Beautiful Island Park

Historic orchard in spring.

The historic Sandwith orchard was planted in the early 1870s, and is now located in the park. NPS photo by Mike Vouri.

There may not be any partridges in these pear trees, but they're some of the oldest surviving specimens in the country. They're located in a beautiful setting on an island, where a pig had a starring role in a key event in our nation's history.

San Juan Island is well known for splendid vistas, saltwater shore, quiet woodlands and orca whales. But it was also here in 1859 that the United States and Great Britain nearly went to war over a dead pig
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If you'd like to refresh your memory about the Pig War, you'll find a nice summary on the website for San Juan Island National Historical Park, in Washington State.

Along with some fascinating history, this park has lots to offer:

As the largest tract of public land on San Juan Island, the park has more than six miles of public shoreline and is also a primary destination of hikers with a network of trails exploring woodlands, prairie and uplands. As a stop along the Pacific flyway, the park also provides temporary homes for more than 200 species of migratory birds.

Now some very old trees are getting a new lease on life at San Juan Island.

In celebration of island homesteaders and agricultural history, San Juan Island National Historical Park is rehabilitating an orchard planted 130 years ago by a pioneer family at English Camp.

This won’t look anything like today’s commercial orchard, with its short, compact trees planted in closely knit rows. These full-sized trees will grow unfettered to heights of 25 and 45 feet — wild and natural, with a great canopy of leaves.

Planted in the mid-1870s by Isaac Sandwith, the one-acre orchard is located on West Valley Road just north of the park’s south boundary. Islanders have long been aware of the orchard, which is dominated by one of the oldest pear trees in the country.

Ten years ago that the park invited Susan Dolan, historical landscape architect with the NPS regional office in Seattle, to inspect this ancient pear tree.

She was hooked as soon as she blazed the trail through chest-high Nootka rose bushes and snowberry vines to what remained of the old orchard.

“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.”

Thus began a project that would eventually involve taking cuttings from nine surviving trees, tracing the varieties and grafting the cuttings to healthy young seedlings of similar stock. The grafted trees would be planted to recreate a representative sample of the landscape as it existed at the end of the joint military occupation. Dolan believes the Sandwith orchard is particularly significant in island history because the multiple varieties reveal it as a “homestead garden.“

“It was typical of homesteaders to plant orchards with a variety of species to have food for the table throughout the seasons,” she said. “This way a mixture of pears, cherries, apples, apricots, and wild plums came into harvest sequentially.”

To recreate the orchard, saplings were propagated by cuttings not only from the surviving Sandwith trees, but also from the scatter of pear trees at the northwest end of the English Camp parade ground and from several plum trees in the vicinity of the Crook house. The cuttings were grafted onto seedling rootstock at the Raintree Nursery in Morton, Washington. In order to produce accurate clones of the old fruit trees, the new trees were grown at the nursery for two years before they were bareroot-planted in the orchard.

On March 14th, 23 trees — 11 pear, four apple, five apricot and three plum — were planted by park staff, a Washington Conservation Corps crew and island volunteers. Crews planted the trees 30 feet apart according to the grid layout established by Sandwith. Each tree received a six-foot-tall deer fence, nutritional mulch and white wash on the trunk to protect the tree from sun scald. They will be full-grown in about 20 years, and will begin to bear fruit in 10.

Today’s high-yield trees bear fruit in just two years, but might live only 30 years. A standard apple tree on a seedling rootstock can live 200 years, a pear 250. One of the Sandwith-period apple trees still survives today. Of course, it’s unclear as to who may have planted this particular tree.

The orchard may also have been the enterprise of August Hoffmeister, the post sutler (storekeeper) at the Royal Marine Camp throughout the joint occupation. Hoffmeister occupied (without patent) an adjacent parcel, which also has a scattering of fruit trees near the Sandwith boundary.

I think it's a peach of a project.

You'll find more information to help you plan a visit to San Juan Island National Historical Park on the area's website. This is an island, so pay special attention to some essential tips on advance planning for how to get there, where to stay and how to get around once you arrive.

Comments

A very interesting read. I have bookmarked this for future reference and reading.

What an interesting piece! I have bookmarked for future reference and reading. Apple trees on apple seedling is a sure fire way for long term apple production.