Mount Pleasant’s heritage apple tree may live again

Final crop? This Mount Pleasant apple tree at 6th and Alberta is loaded with fruit.

This Mount Pleasant apple tree was probably planted in 1917, the same year this small home was built for a Vancouver milk delivery man by his employer.

The Mount Pleasant apple tree that graces the front yard of a Mount Pleasant heritage home, both facing redevelopment to make way for a new BC Transmission Corp. substation, has been given a brief reprieve from the chain saw.

And friends of the tree are rallying to keep it growing, either with a complete transplant to a nearby property, or through propagation of grafted shoots that can be raised in a Richmond nursery for later transplant to new homes.

(The project is part of BCTC’s Vancouver Central City Transmission project to expand power capacity in Mount Pleasant and south False Creek. Here’s a recent update on the program, including the substation.)

According to BCTC spokesperson Mike Witherly, demolition and site clearing are now scheduled for early in the New Year, leaving another month to see if the tree, at least, can find a new life elsewhere.

Witherly said earlier this month that a nearby property owner may be able to  take the tree down the street. If not, I’ve been in touch with urban farmers at the Vancouver Fruit Tree Project, who  are ready to organize a harvest of “scion” wood for grafting onto new shoots that can be raised in a Richmond orchard until they’re ready to return to Vancouver.

Both the tree and the house are links to the earliest days of one of Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhoods, proof that both urban agriculture and the need for affordable workers’ housing are as old as the city itself.

When I first encountered the tree last August, it dominated its 6th and Alberta corner with a bumper crop of apples. The tree, not the home, piqued my interest as a a veteran of the earliest days of Vancouver urban agriculture. Others, including the Sun’s Rebecca Terbrake, picked up the story.

When I consulted Kwantlen University’s Kent Mullinix, one of BC’s leading apple experts, about the prospects for the tree, he went to see for himself.

His assessment: the tree was indeed the bearer of a good crop of dessert apples of an unknown heritage variety. It could be transplanted — although a successful replanting was not guaranteed — provided it had an appropriate pruning, a good new location and a bit of luck.

Other experts, including a park board arborist who got wind of the discussion, was not so sure. The tree’s aged roots had spread far and wide, transplanting could be costly, and success was far from certain, in his view.

The tree may find new life, even if only as some branches grafted on a new stem. The house, despite its history, is doomed.

According to the city archives, the unassuming home at 304 West 6th Ave. was tied into the city’s water system on March 21, 1917, with one tap, one toilet, one wash basin. The signatory’s name is Roy E. Clark, who was the assistant manager of Standard Milk Company.

William Armstrong, a SMC salesman, was the first tenant and stayed there for about five years. Standard Milk, which built the home for its employees’ use, estimated the value of the building at $500. The dairy itself was at 405 W. 8th at the corner of Yukon.

A Standard Milk Co. parade float in 1914. Is the driver the original tenant from 304 W. 6th, now slated for demolition to make way for a BCTC substation? Did he plant the Mount Pleasant heritage apply tree?

A Standard Milk Co. parade float in 1914. Is the driver the original tenant from 304 W. 6th, now slated for demolition to make way for a BCTC substation? Did he plant the Mount Pleasant heritage apple tree?

The home is a C registered building, the lowest level, which signifies it has unique character. The lot was carved from a larger lot owned in the 1880s and 1890s by an accountant linked to the CPR. Streetcar service came to the area in 1891. The rapid turnover of residents suggests it was a rental property built by SMC for its employees, a strategy Vancouver may soon see again if affordable housing is to become a reality.

Time is running out. Once BCTC obtains necessary regulatory approvals for a new substation on the site, the tree and the home it shaded will be gone.

But there is every likelihood this Mount Pleasant veteran will survive — in some form — to blossom and bear fruit again.

Merry Christmas.