Apple of my Eye

Picking fruit in downtown Seattle

The other day I was biking along the Centennial Trail north of Arlington with a friend. Growing along the trail are a half dozen or so apple trees. As we rode along we speculated as to their origin. The trail, like several in the region including the Burke-Gilman, began life as train routes that eventually gave way to the rails-to-trails movement. Our speculation was that the trees are wild ones that came from apples someone ate and tossed off the train. The seeds germinated and a tree was born. Of course, the proverbial bear (or other such beast) could have pooped the seeds out, too.

I have found the same phenomenon in Seattle along the Burke-Gilman, originally the Seattle, Lake Shore, and Eastern RR. One of the bigger apple trees grows just under the I-5 Bridge over Lake Union. Like the Centennial Trail trees, the apple trees along the Burke seem more connected to random human action than to a specific plan to populate the old train routes with fruit trees, although I do like that idea.

Seattle, like many cities, has had a long tradition of orchards and fruit trees. In 1860, Seattle had a settler population of a little over 300 people and nearly 3,000 apple trees, along with 197 pear and 177 cherry trees. Beyond the abundance of fruit, what astounds me is the different types of available fruit. For example, in 1878 a fruit-focused Seattleite could purchase 50 apple varieties, 40 pear, and 11 peach. All were “sure to ripen in this climate.” Even in the best stocked supermarkets in town, modern residents cannot hope to match these numbers.

Most of those trees would have been in what is now downtown Seattle and must have provided an amazing bounty for urban dwellers. The spring air would have been redolent with the trees’ flowers’ enticing aroma, as well as filled with the wingbeats of pollinators. When the fruit matured, I like to imagine that neighborhood kids scoured their territories collecting fruit, most of which got eaten but some of which must have ended up missiling through the air as fruity weapons.

A few orchards still dot the urban landscape. Probably the best known and most diverse is along Pipers Creek in Carkeek Park. Planted at the end of the 19th century, the orchard contains numerous varieties of apple, as well as other fruits and nuts. And, there are still many, many small orchards or single trees dotting Seattle yards, which were perhaps part of larger orchards or the product of a fruitphilic homeowner.

Sadly, one of my favorite urban fruit trees no longer exists. Located in the Pike Place Market on Stewart between Western and 1st Ave, the cherry tree was removed in 2013-2014. The lone tree was one of several downtown cherries that artist Buster Simpson tried to protect in the 1970s and 1980s. Simpson believes, and I think he is correct, that the trees sprouted from seeds originally dropped or spit out by someone who had acquired the cherries at the market, ate some, and disposed of them.

I love the idea that feral fruit trees existed in downtown Seattle so recently and that many previously cultivated and wild fruit trees can still be found for those willing to search. Each of them tells a story, be it the connection between a resident and their home or simply the randomness of the natural world. As they say, one person’s garbage is another’s fruit tree.

June 1 - 6:30 PM - The international launch of Homewaters, up on Salt Spring Island in Canada. I will speaking with my pal Dave Secord in a talk sponsored by Salt Spring Island Conservancy, Transition Salt Spring, and Salt Spring Books.