Apple Pollination Groups - Choosing Compatible Trees

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Bee pollinating apple tree blossom

There’s nothing quite like sinking your teeth into a juicy, home-grown apple. First there’s the crunch as you puncture the skin, followed by that burst of cool, aromatic flesh – all rounded off by a sweet, nectar-like taste. But aside from the obvious benefits of freshness, flavour and frugality, there are plenty of other compelling reasons to grow a tree or two of your own. With supermarkets and food stores offering just a meagre selection of varieties, perhaps the biggest advantage is access to the literally hundreds (and possibly even thousands) of exciting options open to the kitchen gardener. No other fruit has so much tradition, folklore and abundance associated with it. The home grower is very much spoilt for choice.

Autumn is the perfect time to be thinking about ordering and planting new apple trees. In most places the soil will still hold residual warmth from the summer, allowing easy working of the ground and potentially quicker establishment. Our previous article covered basic guidelines for choosing apples and rootstocks but it’s worth explaining the sometimes confusing influence of pollination groups on variety selection. Many would-be apple enthusiasts are put off by the apparent complexity of this subject. This is a shame as once you understand the basics, it’s really quite straightforward.

Pollinating Apple Tree Flowers

Like all fruit trees, apples need to be pollinated if they are to set fruit. This involves the transfer of pollen from the stamen (the male part of the flower) to the stigma (the female part). Pollinating insects such as bees work hard at this job, which is one reason why it’s so important to plant pollinator-attracting flowers in among our crops – to keep them on side and coming back! Wind will also help to pollinate apple blossom.

Ripe home-grown apples

While some varieties of apple are able to fertilize themselves (trees described as ‘self-fertile’), others require pollen from another tree to do the job – a process known as cross-pollination. In all cases, however, a higher rate of fruit set will be enjoyed when trees are cross-pollinated, so a small group of trees is always better than one lonely specimen, even if it is self-fertile.

Of course, not all apples blossom at the same time and, to add another player into the game, not all varieties are necessarily compatible. Certain types called triploids require not one but two other fruit trees to ensure good pollination – and these mustn’t be other triploids. This might rule out triploid varieties for some, but a number of popular, good-tasting apples – for example, ‘Bramley’s Seedling’, ‘Ribston Pippin’ and ‘Jonagold’ – happen to be triploids, making them worth the apparent effort.

Perfect partners

Apple varieties, like plums, pears and other fruit trees, are grouped according to when they flower. The earliest pollination group to blossom is group A, followed by groups B and C and, bringing up the rear towards the end of spring, group D. Any respectable fruit nursery will catalog the varieties it offers according to pollination group, making the selection process considerably simpler. Needless to say it’s best to pick varieties from the same group to ensure they will be in flower at the same time, though varieties from adjacent groups will offer some overlap and hence pollination success.

Apple blossom
Apples are classified in pollination groups according to when they flower

Growing two or more apples shouldn’t pose a problem in even the tiniest of gardens given modern dwarfing rootstocks. Nevertheless, those clever nurserymen have come up with the ultimate in convenience – the family tree. Family trees feature a single rootstock onto which has been grafted two or more varieties; you get to enjoy a number of tempting varieties on just one tree. This clever solution serves two purposes: it saves space and guarantees pollination, giving an almost failsafe result. As well as offering varieties from the same pollination group, the nursery should also have selected varieties with about the same vigour to prevent one of the grafted varieties from dominating over time.

When Choosing Apples, Go for Taste

The real joy for us kitchen gardeners is that with so many varieties in each group to choose from, there’s still ample room for manoeuvre. It means there’s plenty of scope to choose exactly the qualities you are after, even if your search list is narrowed down to a single pollination group.

Apple tree with fruit

First and foremost, consider whether you are after an eating apple or a cooking apple. Varieties sit somewhere along a sweet to acid scale, so that those with a sweeter taste are suitable for dessert purposes, those that are more acidic are good for cooking, and those hovering in the middle can be used for either. Be guided by a variety’s description in making your choice and, if you can, get yourself along to one of a number of special apple days where many unusual (and common) apples will be there for the tasting – ultimately the best way of deciding what you’d like to grow.

Consider also your local climate. If your garden is prone to snap frosts late in spring, opt for varieties that come into blossom later to reduce the risk of damage to your prospects. Bear in mind when varieties crop. With a little thought there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy home-grown apples from August to the following spring by selecting a range of immediate eaters and storing staples.

The secret to any thriving miniature orchard lies in the planning. A few hours invested in scouring the catalogs and nursery websites to draw up a list of favorites that will work for you and your location is time well spent. Years of delicious, appley splendor are the reward for meticulous planning.

By Benedict Vanheems. Bee on apple blossom photo courtesy of Mullica.

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Comments

 
"where can I buy a bramley apple tree in south africa"
ron on Monday 20 March 2017
"Can I use a flowering crab apple to cross pollinate with a honey crisp apple?"
Kevin on Tuesday 22 May 2018
"i sent you a question on 20 march 2017-you have never answered Ron"
Ron on Wednesday 23 May 2018
"Hi Ron. I conducted a thorough search for 'Bramley' apple trees in South Africa and I'm afraid I couldn't find any suppliers. So sorry for late reply!"
Ben Vanheems on Wednesday 23 May 2018
"Hi Kevin. Yes, there are many varieties of crab apple that will happily pollinate a 'Honeycrisp' apple."
Ben Vanheems on Wednesday 23 May 2018
"Will a Ruby Mac cross pollinate with a Brookfield Gala? I also have Honeycrisp in my orchard. Thanks"
Joe on Sunday 14 April 2019
"Hi Joe. I'm having trouble finding the exact pollination groups for the varieties you mention. Probably the best thing would be to contact a nursery that stocks these varieties and ask for their opinion on this. Sorry I can't be of specific help on this."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 22 April 2019
"Hello, my mum planted an apple tree 3-4 years ago now. It's never fruited. I've noticed there is some blossom on the tree now just beginning to open (April 26, England). Can you help me identify which pollination group the tree is and do I need to buy another tree to get fruit. Thanks"
Ese on Friday 26 April 2019
"It's hard to identify apple varieties from just pictures, so we wouldn't be able to help with this side of things. Some apple varieties are self-pollinating, so you don't need a pollination partner. But most do need a pollination partner and even trees that are partially self-fertile still perform better when they have a pollination partner. There may be enough trees in neighbouring gardens, close by enough, that will perform a function as a suitable partner because the same bees will go between your tree and theirs. This is often the case in urban areas where there are lots of gardens in close proximity. But the only way to be sure of good pollination is to plant another tree of the same pollination group, and for that you'd need to know what variety it is. There are some websites that can help to a certain extent with apple ID - just search 'apple variety identification'. "
Ben Vanheems on Saturday 27 April 2019
"Why do apple trees need to be pollinated by a different variety? What is the genetics behind the need for cross pollination with a different variety? All articles focus on which varieties are compatible pollinators, but no articles focus on the mechanisms."
Mike on Sunday 28 April 2019
"I planted a Stayman Winesap (triploid), an Arkansas Black (triploid) and a Golden Grimes (self-pollinating diploid) two years ago. I planted a Prairie Fire crab apple this year for the wild critters to eat and aid in pollinating the apples. Now I'm thinking I made a mistake by planting the crab apple if I want to start some Golden Grimes from seed. What do you think? The crab apple tree is about 100' away from the apple trees. Thanks"
David on Tuesday 7 May 2019
"Hi Mike. That's a very good question. I'm afraid I'm not a geneticist and despite a search for an answer myself, have drawn a blank on answering your question. Hopefully someone who knows more can shed light on this - anyone?"
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 7 May 2019
"Hi David. I'm not sure on this one. But I wouldn't recommend starting specific apple varieties from seed anyhow, as the resulting seedlings are often very different to the parent variety. It would be better and far more reliable to grow new apples from cuttings."
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 7 May 2019
"I have 3 apple trees, 1 golden delicious,1granny smith. They don't produce blossom or apples-just leaves. What can I do? Melbourne Australia"
June on Wednesday 9 October 2019

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