All About the Apple Called Yellow Bellflower

Mystery surrounds this apple, for no one knew or remembered when it originated but “Coxe” reported in 1817 “The original tree at Burlington, N. J. was large and old.” There is no doubt that it was an old colonial fruit. The ‘Yellow Bellflower’ was always called ‘Belle Fleur’ by the French because of its beauty in blossom. This large, handsome, winter apple was a favorite for making pies. Its smooth pale lemon-yellow fruit, sometimes reluctant to fall, lingered even when the first flurries of winter left the tree bare of leaves and progeny exposed to birds and animals and children.

With each advance of civilization on our continent the ‘Yellow Bellflower’ readily found a home, for the apple grew up with the pioneer and grew old with the pioneer. The apple arrived in the Oregon Country by a strange mode of transportation, at a time when the native hostility was at its highest. It fell to Henderson Luelling and William Meek of Iowa to begin a westward trek of nursery wagons with the first introduced grafted, standard-fruit varieties into the West. It was said that one of the grafted trees was a “Yellow Bellflower”, that reached Oregon in 1847.

H. M. Williamson, in the ‘National Nurseryman” reported that Luelling and Meek were able to find at the homes of settlers a few seedling trees, mostly grown from seeds of fruit raised at Vancouver. They also used the wild crab apple and thorn as stock for apple and pear trees, and the wild cherry stock for stone-fruits, but did not have the best success with these stocks. They also purchased some apple and pear seed from settlers who arrived in 1849, and in the fall of 1859 were able to graft 18,000 trees.

At this point one might think the episode is ended regarding variety and trees, except I came across Henry E. Dosch’s secretarial account in the 1901 report of the Board of Horticulture for the state of Oregon. He reported “apple trees standing on my own grounds near Portland and planted nearly fifty years ago–Baldwins, Spitzenbergs, Fall Pippins, Gloria Mundi and Bellflower–bear as fine fruit today (1901) as they ever did.”

The significance of the Dosch report did not “reach” me right away, until I stood before an aged ‘Yellow bellflower’ apple tree in S. W. Portland. At the time I was working on a pioneer orchard for the Oregon Historical Society at their Howell Territorial Park. This aged tree would certainly compliment my orchard, I thought. My greatest interest was in the owner of the property on which the tree grew. This kind, witty, “alive” woman was no other than Henry E. Dosch’s daughter. A great puzzle was forming in my mind and some of the pieces were fitting perfectly. Could this tree be one of the 18,000 originals, from the Luelling and Meek Nursery of Milwaukie, Oregon? According to Henry Dosch, his orchard indicated an origin of about 1850!

The apple tree is living on land that was .led on for a Donation Land Claim by Albert Kelly. Kelly planted the orchard. Ownership of the land eventually going to the children gave Dr. O. P. S. Plummer, a direct descendant, care of the orchard. His daughter, Mrs. Agnus Burns, at 94 years of age, graciously gave me an afternoon of her time a few years ago. She remembered playing among the old trees as a youth. She told me they came from the Luelling and Meek Nursery of Milwaukie, Oregon.

Tenure of the orchard and land went to a Mr. Bradford about 1870-72, and other continuity of ownership is presented by John Minto, in his “old Orchards’ – 1897-98. He reports: “Mrs. Dosch purchased the place eight years ago (1888) in a rather forlorn hope of saving her husband’s life, which physicians said would not last six months longer in his business.

There was an old orchard–prunes, 12 years old, intergrown with plums and other brush, also the apple orchard was not much better, forty years old. It was a wilderness of sprouts, moss, wooly aphis, and everything that preys upon a neglected fruit tree. These were removed, pruned, fertilized and sprayed, and now they bear from six to twelve boxes of excellent fruit per tree.”

The orchard from that period till today owes its great longevity to the horticulturalist Henry E. Dosch and his daughter, Margueritte. Mr. Dosch was to live into the 1920s. Margueritte became the orchard’s keeper and still resides on the property (1976).

Much has happened since the sale of those first 18,000 fruit trees. The ‘Yellow Bellflower’ was planted in lands from Mexico to Canada and a few still exist. You might ask: “Are there not other old apple trees in the West that might be as old or older than the Dosch tree?” I visited hundreds of orchards, noted historical records, measured trees, secured scions, and visited with the owners. All of this search and research to get the facts and to establish a negative answer. When it was over there was one paramount realization. In the Dosch orchard stood the oldest, living, grafted-standard-fruit-variety in the Western United States, the magnificent ‘Yellow Bellflower.’

(Note: Yellow Bellflower apples from the Dosch tree will be available to taste at the All About Fruit Show, October, 14-15 Alder Creek Middle school, 2006. If you would like a tree made from scion from this tree, see Make-A-Trees desk at the show. Or, if you would like scion from the oldest, living, grafted-standard-fruit-variety in the Western United States, please leave your name on the sign-up sheet, next to the apples. The scion will be made available at the 2006 scion exchange. Sign up for event alerts on the Events Page -Ted Swensen)

Reprinted from Pome News, April 1, 1976