The first time I went to a Scion Exchange I didn't know what to expect—was it a science fiction convention? As I drew nearer I saw people entering the building with little sticks under their arms—was it some sect of Wicca? The Wicker Wiccan maybe? But no, a Scion Exchange is where farmers and home gardeners bring twig cuttings from their best fruit and nut trees to swap so others may grow heirloom varieties. The requirements are simple: bring some, take some, and make notes.
The Exchanges take place in winter, when trees are dormant and the gardeners and farmers are restless with spring planning. I went to an exchange in Sebastopol, CA (Sonoma county). They can be found through your local chapter of the Rare Fruit Growers Association or Farm Extension Service. Inside a Scion Exchange you'll find long tables with heaps of branch cuttings in labeled plastic bags and marking tape. They are laid out under their genus headings for Pears, Stone Fruit, Cane Berries, and Apples. Bags with intriguing names like “Sweet Victoria,” “Fiesta,” “Sunrise,” and “Api Etoile.” Some names allude to previous growers: “Tydeman's Late Orange Apple,” “Hudson's Golden Gem,” and “Jeffers.”
The hall, often a grange or school cafeteria depending on the town, is abuzz with gossip—what pests are around, water issues, the dirt on soil, and, of course, the weather. The Scion Exchange is where you can learn the fine art of grafting fruit trees. Grafting is the art of inserting a cutting from one fruit tree into another to propagate a plant. Orchardists wait patiently for a turn with a Master Grafter, who will demonstrate by grafting the special scion wood onto an appropriate rootstock – which you then plant. With grafting know-how and some luck you could successfully graft one variety, of say a Waltana Apple, onto an existing Gravenstein Apple tree. Grafting various varieties onto one tree is a way for orchardists to maximize their harvest and space. Grafting is cloning, but not GMO – it is an ancient technique dating back to Mesopotamia. Growing trees from seeds is not a realistic option on our human time scale.
When I asked one orchardist what she was looking for at the Scion Exchange she replied "Disease resistance. I don't want to have to spray." Growing organically is by far the prevailing sentiment among orchardists. The exchange of these varieties not only builds community among gardeners, but diversity in the fruit varieties available. It is a way for outstanding varieties to get known. This is just the bare tree part of the story. The fruit tasting is in September.
Heidi Lewis writes about farms, bees, and fruit from her home in Sonoma County, CA. She's been with The FruitGuys since they were FruitKids.