This is a very common question from enthusiastic gardeners excited to grow their own trees. The answer is very simple—yes.

Trees grown this way are called seedlings. We talk about the difference between seedlings and dwarf trees in this blog.

In fact, the more interesting question is, “will a seedling apple tree bear edible fruit?”

This is much harder to answer—it’s “maybe”—and in fact depends on sheer chance.

Apple trees are just like people…

The seeds inside an apple are a genetic mix of its parents (just like people). The fruit they grow will be a random genetic mixture of the tree it grew on and whichever apple tree pollinised it.

Just like children in a family may be completely different from each other, every seedling apple tree will vary.

This is important to understand if you’re trying to figure out what type of tree you have. For example, you might have moved into a house with existing fruit trees and you don’t know their history.

Maybe you have an apple tree that doesn’t produce fruit or fruit that’s not very nice. It’s a situation that arises frequently for our Grow Great Fruit members.

There’s a good chance that the original homeowner (or whoever planted the tree) won’t have kept good records or labels. As the new resident, this makes it tricky to know what you’re dealing with. So, you’ll probably need to do some garden detective work to figure out what you’ve got.

How to tell the difference between an apple tree that’s grown from a seed and a grafted tree

First up, you need to look at whether the tree is grafted or a random apple tree that’s grown from seed.

Not sure of the difference?

The trunk of an apple tree with a bulge about 30cm from the ground which is the graft union. The bark above and below the graft is different colours. The soil around the tree is brown with a selection of green weeds growing.
An 8-year-old apple tree with an obvious graft union, which will become less obvious as the trunk thickens with age

Here are a couple of tips that might help:

Look for a graft union, where the scion was grafted onto the rootstock.

Any fruit tree you buy from a nursery will have been grafted unless you’re buying rootstocks from a specialist rootstock nursery.

Unfortunately, the graft union may be hard to see in the adult tree. If you can see it (there are a couple of examples in the photos above and below) – great! You know you’ve got a grafted tree, which means it’s a known variety. Then you can start trying to figure out which one, and look for other reasons why it might not be bearing fruit.

Unfortunately, not being able to see a graft union is inconclusive evidence. It may be a seedling, or it may be a grafted tree where the union is no longer visible.

A mature tree in Tuscany with a very obvious graft union
A mature tree in Tuscany with a very obvious graft union

Another give-away is a tree having multiple trunks.

Seedlings are often naturally multi-trunked, while grafted trees always start with a single trunk.

It’s very common (particularly if a tree hasn’t been well looked after) to see the original grafted trunk plus a number of suckers from below the graft union that have become extra trunks.

One way to spot this is to note whether seasonal changes (e.g. blossom, or leaves changing colour in autumn) look the same and happen at the same time on each trunk. Also, check whether they all bear the same type of fruit (or any fruit at all).

A seedling apple tree with multiple trunks growing from beneath a tangled mess of branches with green leaves, there is long brown grass beneath the tree
A seedling apple tree with multiple trunks

Celebration of the seedling in America

Traditionally in Australia, seedlings have been thought of only as a source of rootstocks for grafting known varieties onto. Seedlings themselves have been considered at best worthless, and at worst pest trees that must be chopped down and eradicated.

We noticed a much different approach to seedling apple trees when we visited America. In Maine, we visited the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners, which must be the apple-nerd capital of the world. At MOFGA, seedlings are more likely to be appreciated for their own potential.

A book cover with a colourful impressionist watercolour rendering of two apple trees with red trunks, and muilticoloured appples on the trees and the ground, in front of a blue sky. The title of the book is Apples and the Art of Detection and the author is John Bunker
One of our favourite books from Maine, the apple nerd state

A seedling apple is like a musical improvisation In the world of music, one parent would be the original composition and the second would be the musician. When the musician sets aside the printed page and plays the tune extemporaneously, the result is something new….You may or may not recognise the tune. It may be pleasant to the ear, or it may be discordant. Musical improvisations may be endlessly fresh and inventive…they may also be stale, cliche and uninteresting. However, whether you like them or not…each will be new and unique.

Same with apples. Some seedlings will be stale and uninteresting, while others will be quite wonderful. Each is an improvisation.

John Bunker, Apples and the Art of Detection
A huge multi-trunked seedling apple tree in a clearing in a forest, with many other straight trees in the distant. The leaves are green and brown, there is long brown and green grass beneath the tree.
Nan Cobbey’s huge multi-trunked seedling apple tree growing in Belfast, Maine.
From “Apples and the Art of Detection”, by John Bunker

Why does it matter?

So, if a seedling tree is potentially a wonderful fruit tree in its own right, why does it matter if your tree is a seedling or a grafted tree?

Because (as John points out), “some seedlings will be stale and uninteresting”. In other words, the fruit they produce is not nice to eat, which makes the trees useless.

Grafted varieties however have all been chosen because they’ve been proved to grow apples with desirable characteristics.

If you’re aiming for fruit self-sufficiency (and if you’ve got room for a few trees, why wouldn’t you be?) then each tree needs to pull its weight by growing the varieties and quantities of fruit you want.

So if you really want to achieve fruit self-sufficiency, you need to know what you’re starting with (as explained in Grow A Year’s Supply of Fruit). There’s no room in a productive and thriving food production garden for “stale and uninteresting” fruit!

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