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You’re probably familiar with fruit cocktail, but what about a fruit cocktail tree? Search yards in your neighborhood and you might be able to find a tree that produces several different but related fruits—one set of branches grows plums, another peaches, and another apricots for example. This tree of plenty may be an elegant and sophisticated presentation of nature’s bounty, but the method behind its creation is ancient and rather crude: Cut a bit from one tree and wriggle it into the wound you make in another. Bandage, wait a season, and behold—a new tree.

Want to try your hand at grafting?

Want to practice other kinds of grafts? The University of Minnesota Extension Service has a good online guide, including illustrations, for many kinds of grafts.

Grafting is, at its simplest, wounding and healing. It’s the gardener’s way of taking advantage of a tree’s natural repair mechanisms. The growth of a trees trunk and branches occurs in a layer called the cambium, a greenish tissue that lies just under the tree’s protective bark. One unique talent of the cambium layer is that if it’s cut or torn, the two pieces will grow back together again. Grafters make use of this by cutting parts of the trees they want to graft together—taking a branch cut from one tree and putting it over the spot where a branch has been removed from another—and securing them in such a way that their cambium layers are in contact with each other. Over time, these layers will grow together, and the grafted part will become just another branch of the tree.

There are some good reasons to put a tree through all this injury (besides getting it to grow three different fruits). Consider orange trees: the roots of the tree that produces the  sweet orange that we know and love can take up a virus that effects the growth of tree bark. The roots of the less-loved sour orange, however, won’t accept this virus. So by grafting sweet orange buds onto sour orange trees, growers in places like Texas protect their crop from disease. Grafting can make trees resistant to a variety of factors, including cold, drought, and microbes.

A second reason to graft is that some tree families, such as citrus, don’t reproduce reliably. Oranges, for example, are either seedless, or are hybrids that may produce a tree that is somewhat different from its parent. Grafting gives growers a simple way to reproduce fruit trees without having to rely on seeds.

Basket Tree

© Bonfante Gardens

Ancient farmers and gardeners probably got the idea for grafting from nature itself. Young trees that sprout close together may graft as they grow up. Occasionally the branch of one tree will grow into the crook of another, and the pressure will injure the bark enough to allow the trees to graft. The creeping fig tree will graft its own branches in a tangle around another tree it uses for support. Other plants, such as rubber trees, are known to graft with each other at the roots. There are records of gardeners grafting in China and Mesopotamia as early as 2000 BC. Grafting was common in ancient Greece. In Renaissance England, grafters began making tree sculptures, and some artists and horticulturists continue the tradition today.

For pictures of some fanciful grafts, check out the Circus Trees at Bonfante Gardens in Gilroy, CA:




© Exploratorium