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Updated 9/19/2020

Project Background

The Flathead and Bitterroot Valleys are the largest production regions in Montana for commercial tree fruits like apples, pears, plums, and cherries. Many other parts of the state are lacking in fruit production, leaving rural residents without easy access to fresh, affordable fruit. 

In 2012, MSU Extension was awarded a grant to establish fruit tree research sites outside of the Flathead and Bitterroot Valleys. MSU Extension personnel Toby Day and Brent Sarchet were the project leads. Using the results of the study, project goals included providing recommendations for appropriate cultivars for each region, developing fruit care resources for growers, and providing fruit tree outreach and education. Fruit tree research sites were planted between 2013 and 2016.

The project was transferred to MSU-WARC in early 2019, following project leads’ departure from MSU. In the spring of 2019, Chase Anderson of MSU-WARC worked to contact both Extension personnel and private landowners involved with these sites and coordinated visits to collect data regarding plots and trees.

Highlights

Before planting, one must consider a multitude of variables, including site selection, design and management, severe weather, and pest and disease management. Individual sites were managed differently (Table 2) and environmental conditions varied (Table 1). Many cultivars had multiple replacements over several years, which confounds comparisons among cultivars and sites. However, survival rates provide a commentary regarding cultivars’ robustness to extremes in Montana’s harsh climate. Tree survival rates averaged across sites and cultivars were 63% for apples, 45% for pears, and 46% for plums (Tables 8, 9, and 10). 

As of spring 2019, the best-performing cultivars in terms of survival were 'Zestar' apple and 'Mount Royal' and 'Toka' plum (see Fruit Tree Cultivars). Although rootstock is an important consideration that could influence tree survival, this information was not available and so was not considered in data analyses. As of spring 2019, we can summarize the following:

  • Apples: The cultivar Northern Lights had a lower than average survival rate relative to 'Goodland', 'Honeycrisp', 'Frostbite', 'Sweet 16', and 'Zestar'. 'Zestar' had better survival rates than average; two site managers noted this variety as a site favorite.
  • Pears: There was no statistical difference in survival rates among core pear cultivars 'Golden Spice', 'Luscious', 'Parker', 'Patten', and 'Ure'. These pear cultivars were selected for the research trial due to their cold tolerance, but less is known about their fire blight resistance. Additionally, one site noted difficulties ripening the fruit: it is unclear whether these pears exhibit typical “summer” vs “winter” ripening. We will explore these questions further as resources (and fruit production) allow.
  • Plums: Survival rates were superior for 'Mount Royal' and 'Toka' plum varieties relative to 'Pipestone'. However, plums generally bloom earlier than apples and pears, which could make plums more prone to frost damage. We are planning to collect data on plum bloom timing relative to the other fruit species at two locations this spring (2020).
  • Sour cherries: 'Evans Bali' sour cherry was planted at several sites, but not enough sites were represented to analyze survival rates. Note that MSU-WARC has research trials with these and other cold hardy small fruits.

A 2015 project summary is also available, with recommendations for growing fruit trees in Montana. See also this updated list of considerations and resources for growing apple trees.

Fruit Tree Cultivars

Each of the 10 sites has a core group of cultivars replicated at all the sites, with three replications of each cultivar at each site. Sites with additional space have additional cultivars, some of which are replicated at other sites. The core cultivars were selected based upon anecdotal information that they would perform in Montana, and that they could be procured from wholesale growers.

  • Apple cultivars planted at all sites: 'Honeycrisp', 'Sweet 16', 'Northern Lights', 'Goodland', and 'Zestar'
  • Pear cultivars planted at all sites: 'Parker', 'Patten', 'Golden Spice', 'Ure', and 'Luscious'
  • Plum cultivars planted at all sites: 'Mount Royal', 'Pipestone', and 'Toka'

Cultivar descriptions by Toby Day and Brent Sarchet

KEY:

Fire Blight Resistance Code – R.D. Koski and W.R. Jacobi, Colorado State University; University of Minnesota Extension, MSU Extension

* High Degree of Susceptibility
** Moderately Susceptible
*** Moderately Resistant
?? Unknown Susceptibility

Other Symbols:
Best survival rates across the state in 2015 evaluation

Apple

'Arkansas Black' – Old cultivar discovered in Arkansas in 1870; known for good storage. *

'Blondee' – Cultivar discovered in Ohio in 1998; early ripening. ??

'Carroll' – Moscow pear x Melba cross developed at the Experimental farm in Morden, Manitoba in 1961. Excellent eating apple. Not as vigorous as other apple cultivars. ***

'Chestnut Crab' – University of Minnesota release in 1949. ***

'Cox’s Orange Pippin' – Originates to England in 1825. **

'Frostbite' – A Malinda seedling released from the University of Minnesota in 2008; grandparent of Honeycrisp and parent of Keepsake and Sweet 16. ??

'Gale Gala' – A Gala sport discovered by Wally Gale in his Malaga, WA orchard. **

'Ginger Gold – A seedling discovered in the Harvey orchard near Lovingston, Virginia in 1980. *

'Goodland' – Developed from a Patten Greening seedling at the Experimental Farm in Morden Manitoba in 1931. Excellent eating apple, and excellent cold hardiness. Best performing apple cultivar in the research. **

'Good Mac' – Goodland x McIntosh cross released from the Experimental farm in Morden, Manitoba; one of the best performing apple cultivars in the trial. ***

'Gravenstein' – Old cultivar originating from Denmark in the 1700’s. Questionable cold hardiness east of the divide. **

'Honeycrisp' – Macoun x Honeygoldrelease from the University of Minnesota in 1991. **

'Northern Lights' – Haralson x McIntosh cross made in 1938 at Geneva, New York and introduced from North Dakota State University in 1990. It has not performed in the research; we have had to replace them frequently from winter kill. ***

'Mutsu' – Golden Delicious x Indo cross developed from the Aomori Apple Experiment Station in Japan, 1937. **

'Prairie Magic' – Goodland x Mantet cross released by Mr. Wilfred Drysdale of Neepawa, Manitoba. Limited number of propagators. ??

'Ruby Mac' – McIntosh sport. ***

'Smokehouse' – Old cultivar discovered in Pennsylvania in 1837. ***

'Stayman Winesap #20' – A cultivar of the original Stayman Winesap discovered by Dr. J Stayman of Leavenworth, Kansas in 1886. Known for their long shelf life. **

'Sweet 16' – University of Minnesota release in 1977; good cold hardiness. ***

'Wealthy' – Old seedling cultivar discovered in 1869 in Minnesota; a popular choice in many of Montana’s first orchards. It is still a dominate cultivar in heritage orchards located across the state where trees are 100 plus years old. *

'Zestar' ◊ – State Fair x MN 1691 cross released from University of Minnesota in 1999. One of the best apple cultivars in the trial; great flavor; good cold hardiness. **

Pear

'Clapp’s Favorite' – Discovered in Massachusetts in the 1800s. *

'Flemish Beauty' – A seedling discovered in Belgium in the early 1800’s; very cold hardy with excellent fruit; few propagators of this cultivar. *

'Golden Spice' – A release from the University of Minnesota in 1949; best performing pear cultivars in our research; small fruit but makes a wonderful cider and is very cold hardy. ??

'John' – Aspa x Siberian pear cross released from the University of Saskatchewan in 1960; vigorous growth, very cold hardy, early blooms (late April in Helena area) are susceptible to frost damage. ??

'Luscious' – A South Dakota State University release; questionable cold hardiness east of the divide. **

'Parker' – A University of Minnesota release in 1934; questionable cold hardiness east of the divide. ??

'Patten' – Seedling discovered in Iowa; questionable cold hardiness east of the divide. ??

'Pioneer' – Developed by A.L. Young of Brooks, Alberta in 1936; good cold hardiness. ??

'Ure' – A release of the Morden, Manitoba Research Station in 1978. ??

Plum

'Mount Royal' – A European plum with dark blue fruit.

'Pipestone' – A University of Minnesota release in 1942.

'Toka'◊ – A Prunus Americana x Simonii cross introduced in 1911 by Dr. Neils Hansen.

Sour Cherry

'Evans Bali' – Discovered by Leuan Evans in an old orchard near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in 1920s.

Research Site Access

Some MSU Extension Fruit Research Sites are on public land, while others are on private land. To visit an MSU Extension Fruit Research Site, please work with local personnel or extension, as listed by site, below. Plot maps, last updated in spring of 2019, are available as a downloadable Excel file.

County City / nearest city Contact name and affiliation Contact information

Madison-Jefferson

Whitehall Kaleena Miller, MSU-Extension 406-287-3282, kaleena.miller@montana.edu
Gallatin Bozeman Mac Burgess, MSU-Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology Department 406-994-3510, mburgess@montana.edu
Flathead Columbia Falls Pat McGlynn, MSU-Extension or Shari Johnson, Columbia Falls School (site manager) 406-758-5553, pmcglynn@montana.edu
Blaine Lodge Pole Hillary Maxwell, MSU Extension 406-353-2656, maxwell_hillary@yahoo.com
Toole Shelby Kim Woodring, MSU-Extension

406-424-8350, kimberly.suta@montana.edu

Rosebud Colstrip Melissa Ashley, MSU-Extension 406-346-7320, melissa.ashley@montana.edu
Valley Hinsdale Shelley Mills, MSU-Extension 406-228-6241, smills@montana.edu
Teton Power   406-466-2491, teton@montana.edu
Broadwater* no responses from landowners in 2019 Winston Allison Kosto, MSU-Extension 406-266-9242, allison.kosto@montana.edu
Lewis and Clark* no responses from landowners in 2019 Helena Mat Walter 406-447-8350, m.petersonwalter@montana.edu

Research Site Locations

The map below illustrates over 70 heritage fruit orchards (with trees >75 years old) throughout the state along with the present MSU Extension research sites (diamonds), overlaid on NRCS Montana Rangeland Resource Units and EPA Montana Ecoregions. Click >> to view the legend (scroll down through legend to view all layers), and click on any individual point or polygon to view details. Individual orchard layout may be viewed and downloaded online

Site photos

Site photos from the spring of 2019, taken by Chase Anderson

The Future of the MSU Extension Fruit Research Sites

Funding specific to the MSU Extension Fruit Research sites, from the Montana Department of Agriculture - Montana Specialty Crop Block Grant, ended March 31, 2020. MSU-WARC will continue to coordinate research endeavors (e.g. insect trapping and bloom phenology) with sites and provide site support where possible and appropriate. For more information, please contact Rachel Leisso.

Data Tables

Due to differences in environmental conditions, differences in site management, and low numbers of fruit trees per cultivar per site, the reader is advised to consider each site separately, although general trends among cultivar survivability and productivity can be observed.

  1. Site Environmental Conditions
  2. Site Management
  3. Apple Cultivars
  4. Pear Cultivars
  5. Plum Cultivars
  6. Predicted full bloom dates of early blooming apple cultivars at research sites, 2014-2019

  7. Predicted frost damage to apple blossoms at full bloom stage for average blooming varieties at research sites, 2014-2019
  8. Tree survival rates

Table 1. Summary of Site Environmental Conditions

Data were obtained from NOAA. See detailed data tables here. No data available for Helena and Winston sites at this time.

SITE Elevation (ft) Average Total Annual Precip (in) Annual Average High (F) Average Annual Low (F) Extreme High Temp (F) Extreme Low Temp (F)
Bozeman 1455 16.6 83 13 93 -10
Colstrip 981 19.4 86 12 98 -12
Columbia Falls 901 17.0 85 14 96 -10
Hinsdale 2182 16.8 83 2 97 -27
Lodge Pole 4032 23.0 80 6 92 -13
Power 3983 12.3 82 11 94 -10
Shelby 3297 13.4 84 7 97 -20
Whitehall 1329 41.9 88 14 97 -9

Table 2. Site Management

Three trees of each cultivar were planted to each site, usually adjacent to one another in the same row. Sites were managed differentlyfor irrigation, weed control, pruning, and pest control, due to varying resource availability according to private ownership, school/college, and community-driven sites.

SITE Irrigation Fertility management Weed management Pruning Deer issues? Fireblight presence Insect notes Other notes
Bozeman underground sprinkler system, 2-inch, watered per night as needed monitored (soil?) and fertilized as needed 6 ft wide mulch rows that are tilled and pepped each season. Weeds are sprayed and controlled through herbicides applications. yes, each year for demonstration fenced no no info high incidence of vole girdling in the winter of 2020
Colstrip handlines from river none mowed interrows, sod goes right up to trees none yes, not fenced yes no info  
Columbia Falls automatic sprinkler irrigation from well, watered every evening compost from school hand pull weeds; sod is cleared around tree at least 1 ft radius from trunk yes, until fenced in 2018 yes no severe codling moth, abundance of aphids on 'Pipestone' plums  
Helena no response from landowners  -  -  -  -  -  -  -
Hinsdale flood irrigated as needed none field is mowed; sod goes right up to trees none yes yes no info hail damage and strong winds reported at site; herbicide damage two rows
Lodge Pole drip system on solar powered pump, 4 gallons to each tree each evening unknown sod goes right up to the trunk of the trees pruning is up to date, but trees are smaller than at other sites unknown no    
Power drip irrigation from well none site was mowed but in 2019 the grass was high and goes right up to trees none yes yes no info Goodland and Sweet Sixteen apples were still alive
Shelby drip system from well, 2 x 2-gallon emitters per tree none black weed mat around tree, interrows mowed workshops are held by MSU extension yes no no info strong winds, herbicide damage one side
Whitehall drip on well, 2-gallon emitters per trees soil sampling and management per test results 6 ft wide mulch strips around trees; hand removal, no chemicals, grass mowed yes, central leader yes, now fenced no aphids hail damage and strong winds at site, birds love the cherries
Winston no response from landowners  - - - - - - -

Table 3. Apple Cultivars

In most cases, three replicates were planted for each cultivar

APPLE CULTIVAR Bozeman Colstrip Columbia Falls Helena Hinsdale Lodgepole Power Shelby Whitehall Winston
'Arkansas Black'     x x x          
'Carroll' x     x x         x
'Chestnut Crab'       x     x   x x
'Cox's Orange
Pippin'
        x          
'Frostbite'     x   x x x x x  
'Ginger Gold'       x   x   x    
'Goodland' x x x x x x x x x x
'Goodmac' x     x x          
'Gravenstein'                  x
'Honeycrisp' x x x x x x   x x  
'Mutsu'       x   x x      
'Northern Lights'     x x x          
'Prairie Magic'       x x       x  
'Red Stayman
Winesap'
      x            
'Spartan'           x x      
'Sweet 16' x x x x x x x x x x
'Zestar' x   x x x x x x x x

Table 4. Pear Cultivars

In most cases, three replicates were planted per cultivar

PEAR CULTIVAR Bozeman Colstrip Columbia Falls Helena Hinsdale Lodgepole Power Shelby Whitehall Winston
'Golden Spice' x x x x x x x x   x
'Luscious' x x x x x          
'Parker' x x x x x x   x x  
'Patten' x x x x x x x   x x
'Ure' x x x x x x     x x

Table 5. Plum Cultivars

In most cases, three replicates were planted per cultivar

PLUM CULTIVAR Bozeman Colstrip Columbia Falls Helena Hinsdale Lodgepole Power Shelby Whitehall Winston
'Mount Royal' x x x x x x x x x x
'Pipestone' x x x x x   x   x x
'Toka' x x x x x x x x x  

Table 6-7. Potential for frost damage during bloom, 2014-2019

One of the project goals was to determine whether fruit trees could produce fruit at novel locations in Montana. We calculated the risk for frost during bloom⁠—which could impair fruit set⁠—for the research sites. See/download the full data here: MSU Extension Fruit Research Sites potential for frost damage during bloom 2014-2019.

Table 6. Predicted full bloom dates of early blooming apple cultivars at research sites, 2014-2019.  Red cells indicate years/dates where predicted full bloom was interrupted by a frost that would have damaged at least 10% of blossoms (28.9 F or lower). Full bloom stage = 50% or more of blossoms open.  Heat units accumulated prior to predicted full bloom are based on single sine modelling connected with apple bloom records from Montana in 2018-2019.

SITE 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
Bozeman 5/24/2014 4/30/2015 5/5/2016 5/12/2017 5/22/2018 6/1/2019
Colstrip 4/22/2014 3/31/2015 4/2/2016 4/2/2017 5/1/2018 4/16/2019
Columbia Falls 5/22/2014 5/10/2015 5/3/2016 5/23/2017 5/16/2018 5/21/2019
Helena 5/14/2014 4/17/2015 4/22/2016 5/4/2017 5/14/2018 5/16/2019
Hinsdale 5/22/2014 5/2/2015 5/2/2016 5/6/2017 5/16/2018 5/22/2019
Lodge Pole 5/18/2014 4/20/2015 4/20/2016 5/2/2017 5/15/2018 5/15/2019
Power 5/24/2014 4/23/2015 5/2/2016 5/11/2017 5/20/2018 5/30/2019
Whitehall 5/18/2014 4/20/2015 5/3/2016 4/21/2017 5/16/2018 5/26/2019
Winston 5/17/2014 4/24/2015 5/2/2016 5/6/2017 5/16/2018 5/26/2019

  

Table 7. Predicted frost damage to apple blossoms at full bloom stage for average blooming varieties at research sites, 2014-2019.  Red cells indicate years/dates where predicted full bloom was interrupted by a frost that would have damaged at least 10% of blossoms (28.9 F or lower). Full bloom stage = 50% or more of blossoms open.  Heat units accumulated prior to predicted full bloom are based on single sine modelling connected with apple bloom records from Montana in 2018-2019.

SITE 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
Bozeman 6/2/2014 5/22/2015 5/26/2016 5/30/2017 5/30/2018 6/11/2019
Colstrip 5/4/2014 4/16/2015 4/14/2016 4/14/2017 5/7/2018 4/24/2019
Columbia Falls 6/2/2014 5/22/2015 5/15/2016 6/1/2017 5/25/2018 5/31/2019
Helena 5/24/2014 5/2/2015 5/7/2016 5/12/2017 5/24/2018 6/1/2019
Hinsdale 5/28/2014 5/19/2015 5/17/2016 5/16/2017 5/24/2018 6/1/2019
Lodge Pole 5/26/2014 5/5/2015 5/5/2016 5/11/2017 5/23/2018 5/30/2019
Power 6/3/2014 5/14/2015 5/18/2016 5/26/2017 5/28/2018 6/6/2019
Whitehall 5/28/2014 5/6/2015 5/19/2016 5/8/2017 5/27/2018 6/5/2019
Winston 5/26/2014 5/11/2015 5/13/2016 5/23/2017 5/26/2018 6/4/2019

Tables 8-10. Tree survival and growth evaluation, spring 2019

The tables below are also available for download here

Table 8. Apple tree survival

APPLE CULTIVAR Bozeman Colstrip Columbia Falls Helena Hinsdale Lodge Pole Power Shelby Whitehall Winston Percent survival over all sites
'Arkansas Black'     1/1 unknown 2/7           38%
'Carroll' 3/3     unknown           unknown 100% (one site)
'Chestnut Crab'       unknown     1/3   1/3 unknown 33% (limited number of sites)
'Cox’s Orange Pippin'   0/2     0/10           0% (limited number of sites)
'Frostbite'     1/3   3/3 4/4 1/3 1/4 1/3   55%
'Ginger Gold'       unknown 4/4 4/4   0/3     73% (limited number of sites)
'Goodland' 3/3 2/3 4/4 unknown 1/3 4/4 1/3 2/3 2/3 unknown 73%
'Goodmac' 0/1 0/3   unknown 0/2           0% (limited number of sites)
'Gravenstein'         0/3         unknown 0% (limited number of sites)
'Honeycrisp' 2/3 0/3 6/6 unknown 0/3 4/4 0/3 2/3 3/3   61%
'Mutsu'       unknown   4/4 0/4       50% (limited number of sites)
'Prairie Magic'       unknown 0/4       3/3   43% (limited number of sites)
'Red Stayman Winesap'       unknown              
'Spartan'           4/4 0/4       50% (limited number of sites)
'Sweet 16' 3/3 2/3 4/6 unknown 0/3 4/4 0/3 1/3 3/3 unknown 61%
'Zestar' 3/3 2/3 3/3 unknown 3/3 4/4 1/3 1/3 3/3 unknown 80%
'Northern Lights'   0/3 3/3 unknown 0/3   0/3       25%
Total planted 16 20 26 unknown 48 32 29 19 21 unknown  
Total alive 14 6 22 unknown 13 32 4 7 16 unknown  
Percent survival per site 87.5% 30% 85% unknown 27% 100% 14% 37% 76% unknown  

 

Table 9. Pear tree survival

PEAR CULTIVAR Bozeman Colstrip Columbia Falls Helena Hinsdale Lodge Pole Power Shelby Whitehall Winston Percent survival over all sites
'Golden Spice' 3/3 2/4 3/3 unknown 0/3 4/4 1/3 0/3 0/3 unknown 50%
'Luscious' 2/4 0/3 2/3 unknown 0/3   0/3 0/3     21%
'Parker' 2/3 1/3 3/3 unknown 0/3 4/4 1/3 2/3 3/3   64%
'Patten' 1/4 0/3 3/3 unknown 0/3 3/4 0/3 0/3 3/3 unknown 38%
'Ure' 2/3 0/3 3/3 unknown 0/3 4/4 0/3 0/3 3/3 unknown 48%
Total planted 17 16 15 unknown 15 16 15 15 12 unknown  
Total alive 10 3 14 unknown 0 15 2 2 9 unknown  
Percent survival per site 59% 18% 93% unknown 0% 94% 13% 13% 75% unknown  

 

Table 10. Plum tree survival

PLUM CULTIVAR Bozeman Colstrip Columbia Falls Helena Hinsdale Lodge Pole Power Shelby Whitehall Winston Percent survival over all sites
'Mount Royal' 3/3 2/3 1/3 unknown 0/3 1/3 0/3 1/4 3/3 unknown 44%
'Pipestone' 2/3 0/3 0/3 unknown 1/3 unknown 0/3 0/3 3/3 unknown 29%
'Toka' 3/4 0/3 2/3 unknown 1/3 3/3 1/3 3/3 3/3 unknown 64%
Total planted 10.0 9.0 9.0 unknown 9.0 6.0 9.0 10.0 9.0 unknown  
Total alive 8.0 2.0 3.0 unknown 2.0 4.0 1.0 4.0 9.0 unknown  
Percent survival per site 80% 22% 33% unknown 22% 67% 11% 40% 100% unknown  

Data analysis

Fruit tree cultivar survival were analyzed separately according to species (apple, pear, and plum), and included only cultivars present at most sites. Survival according to species was tabulated for in contingency tables (number alive vs number dead) and analyzed for “goodness of fit” according to chi-square distribution, where the null hypothesis is that there is no difference between the observed (alive or dead) and expected (alive or dead) frequencies. Where the overall chi-square statistic was significant, post-hoc tests were performed on adjusted residuals (to account for variation in sample size) with Bonferroni’s adjusted p-value for multiple testing comparisons.

  • Apples: chi-square test statistic, 12.3; chi-square critical value, 11.1; degrees of freedom, 5; n, 139; p-value, 0.031.
  • Pears: chi-square test statistic, 8.8; chi-square critical value, 9.5; degrees of freedom, 4; n, 121; p-value, 0.065.
  • Plums: chi-square test statistic, 26.8; chi-square critical value, 5.9; degrees of freedom, 2; n, 71; p-value, 0.000001.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank MSU Extension personnel, site landowners, and site managers for their time and contributions to the project, and Chase Anderson for site visits, data collection, and summaries, and Rebecca Richter for website content creation and management.

This project is funded by a Montana Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant.

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