A Resurrected Crabapple Tree

Reader Contribution by Ellen Sandbeck
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Rasputin the crabapple is leafing out again. This may seem like an ordinary event in the life of a tree, but every spring I am thrilled to see it.

Rasputin is a Centennial crabapple that my husband and I planted nine years ago, during our first planting season in our country home. Centennials produce apples that are small but delicious, and we had high hopes for this little tree. Unfortunately, after its first winter in our garden, the tree was looking a bit peaked. With some trepidation, I unwound the spiral plastic tree wrap from the little trunk, and discovered that it had been completely girdled by a hungry varmint that had somehow squeezed beneath the wrap and eaten its way around the little sapling. A ring of bark three inches high had been neatly removed from the trunk several inches above ground level.

Under normal circumstances, girdling is fatal because sap cannot cross the bark-free area, so unless a bridging bit of bark is left to act as a conduit for the sap, the tree is doomed. However, there were several root sprouts coming up from the soil, and these sprouts were nearly long enough to span the damaged part of the trunk. I was not willing to give up yet, so I pulled each sprout up as close to the trunk as I could, removed a bit of the outermost layer of the young tender bark on the side closest to the tree’s trunk and used tiny finishing nails to attach the sprout to the trunk of the tree. Then I crossed my fingers.
As the days passed, the tree looked increasingly peaked, and most of its leaves wilted. Eventually, our elderly neighbor, John, arrived in his geriatric truck with a load of composted manure for my garden. He stopped the truck and got out, then the truck began to roll backward, because he had forgotten to set the parking brake. Dmitri jumped into the cab and stopped the truck, but not before it had backed over the little tree, which emitted a heartrending crack! I shrugged. What difference did it make? The tree had been completely girdled by rodents. It was doomed anyway. Being run over couldn’t possibly make it any worse. The tree stood erect again after the truck was removed, but we were not hopeful.

Later in the summer, we had a new garage built. The old one had nearly collapsed on its own, and a new one was a necessity — we needed somewhere to store all our gardening equipment, and incidentally, an occasional vehicle. The dirt that was excavated for the slab was dumped in the area around the little crabapple tree, and ground level was now more than two feet higher than it had been. Normally, this would not be a preferred way to care for a tree, but what difference did it make? The tree was a goner anyway; it had already been girdled and run over. What difference could it possibly make if it was also partially buried?

The next spring, much to our amazement, the little tree leafed out. We watched it carefully, thinking that it was simply suffering a very prolonged death, but it didn’t die. In fact, the next spring, it leafed out again, and this was when we named it Rasputin, after the Russian monk who survived repeated assassination attempts. (The original Rasputin survived being poisoned (twice), shot, and stabbed repeatedly. He finally died only after he was dumped into the icy Neva River, where he drowned.)

But our Rasputin lives! He lives, and he is our only apple tree that has produced apples, even though we planted several trees in that same year. In a few days Rasputin will burst into bloom. We are still waiting for our other apple trees to exhibit some gumption and some blossoms. And the next time we encounter a girdled tree, we will try the Rasputin treatment and bury the trunk to a level above the damaged area. We suspect that is what saved Rasputin: because so much of his trunk was buried, he was able to develop roots above the damaged area.

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell good luck from bad …