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Navy's hidden orchard at Naval Base Kitsap is a 'step back through time'

Terri Jones, a Navy forester, has undertaken great efforts to preserve the legacy of a historic orchard tucked away on Naval Base Kitsap that serves as one of the last few reminders of a bygone era.

LARRY STEAGALL/THE KITSAPSUN (TNS)

By JULIANNE STANFORD | The KitsapSun (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 21, 2017

A Navy forester has undertaken great efforts to preserve the legacy of a historic orchard tucked away on Naval Base Kitsap that serves as one of the last few reminders of a bygone era.

The orchard is one of the few remaining remnants of the five or six original homesteads of the former Bangor townsite along the Hood Canal waterfront before the Navy came to the area in the 1940s.

"It’s like taking a step back through time," said Terri Jones, a forester with Naval Facilities Command Northwest. "When I walk through the orchard, I feel like I'm stepping into my grandma’s backyard."

Today, more than 100 apple, cherry, plum and pear trees sprawl across the 7-acre orchard near Bangor's industrial waterfront.

“It’s a nice little hidden gem back here,” Jones said. “You can imagine the town of Bangor, these people were probably all friends and they shared their plums and apples, and recipes for pies, maybe.”

The orchard has now become overgrown with thick blackberry bush brambles and an invasion of Scotch broom. To get there, you have to bushwhack up the side of an embankment that's just off a roadway through the base. It's past two base security gates, making the orchard inaccessible to the public.

An interesting characteristic of the orchard is the collection of trees doesn't quite meet the textbook definition of one set up for cultivation, Jones said.

"When you walk around, and sometimes you’ll see these perfectly, evenly spaced trees and you’ll go 'Oh, it’s an orchard!'"Jones said. “And then you walk 10 feet, and it’s haphazard, and it’s like 'What is this?'"

But, this historic orchard might not be around much longer.

“Trees have lifespans, just like people. Some species of trees live longer than others, but there are none that last forever,” Jones said.

Many of the trees are almost 100 years old. They show little potential for producing new growth, with rotted, hollowed-out trunks and leafless, gnarled branches covered in lichen. Most of the trees haven't produced a bountiful harvest in years, making it impossible to know just how many fruit varieties the trees could produce.

When Jones first learned about the orchard more than a decade ago, she knew she needed to unlock the orchard's secrets before they were lost forever.

"I wanted to do something to identify and preserve the orchard’s unique characteristics before we no longer could," Jones said. "I wanted to know, because this area was kind of isolated, was there anything that would be unique to the area?"

With the assistance of a pomologist, a botanist who studies and cultivates fruit, Jones went through the orchard to number and catalog all of the trees. They conducted DNA profiles on leaf samples collected from about 30 trees with enough viable new growth to test. That new growth, known as scion, holds the tree's valuable genetic code and can be used to grow new trees of that plant variety, Jones said.

Through the DNA profiles, Jones discovered the orchard once produced two heirloom varieties of apples, one pear and one plum that haven't been widely cultivated for more than a century.

Gravenstein apples, a type of apple that is best when it is freshly plucked from the tree, was one of the heirloom species discovered in the orchard.

"You might not have seen a Gravenstein apple for a really long time and the reason is that they don’t last long in the store, and you can’t really ship them," Jones said. "But if you have a Gravenstein apple pie that was made from a fresh Gravenstein apple, that tastes really good!”

Jones wanted to find a way to preserve the legacy of the orchard's heirloom species and possibly make the varieties accessible to the public once again.

"Those have value for people now who are looking for the old-time species that were grown in their grandparents' backyard, and they wanted to start growing them in their backyards," Jones said.

The scion collected from three of the heirloom species were grafted onto rootstock, or roots cultivated in a nursery for planting later on, at a research and development orchard on Vashon Island.

"I feel really good about that because what’s most unique about this orchard is now grafted into another orchard," Jones said. "I can’t recreate the feelings of the orchard, what it feels like to be here, but I can certainly help maintain the genetics into the future."

Just as the orchard once provided unique types of fruits to Bangor homesteaders, it has become something of a cherished spot for many Bangor sailors and Navy personnel.

"A lot of people do come down, on their way to something or during their lunch break, and they’ll come in to pick apples or whatever they can find," Jones said.

That is, if the bears and other wildlife didn't get to the few fruit-bearing trees left first.

She recalls eating one of the plums on one of her first trips to the orchard.

"They were really tasty,” she said.

Just as Bangor's historic orchard now offers a glimpse into the past, Jones said planting your own fruit trees could one day offer the same opportunity to future generations — and reduce the chance fruit varieties could be lost once again.

"I think it’s really important today to get some of those old heirloom quality plants back into your backyard," Jones said. "And we’ll get to walk through your backyard, and somebody else will get to walk through your backyard in the future and they’ll feel very much the same way we do getting to taste the fruits of the past."

Jones said the future of the orchard is uncertain once the trees die off.

"It’s one of the last few areas along the waterfront that is undeveloped, which makes it a valuable piece of land on the base," Jones said. “I don’t make the decisions about what happens to the land, but I can tell you it won’t be another orchard and what is next is beyond my choices.”

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©2017 the KitsapSun (Bremerton, Wash.)
Visit the KitsapSun (Bremerton, Wash.) at www.kitsapsun.com
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