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Fruit Tree Pollination – A Primer

The pollination of fruit trees is a complicated and diverse topic, aspects of which remain poorly researched. Before delving into messy details, we can make a few generalizations. Also see fruit tree bloom dates and try our Pollenizer Search when you are ready to find partners for your trees.

First, all trees must be pollinated in order to bear fruit. Pollination is when pollen grains from the male anther of a flower are transferred to the female stigma, and this is a critical step in the reproductive process that leads to fruit production (and, more importantly from the tree’s perspective, seed creation). The two main ingredients required for pollination are pollinators (usually bees and other insects that transfer pollen from tree to tree) and pollenizers (trees that supply the pollen). Second, whether or not one tree can serve as a pollenizer for another depends on two considerations: whether the trees are genetically compatible, and whether or not they bloom at the same time.

Some trees are genetically compatible with themselves. These trees are “self-fertile” and this is the easiest pollination scenario for a fruit grower to encounter. Very many fruit trees, however, are not self-fertile, and these will require “cross-pollination”, performed by a pollenizer of a different varity that blooms at the same time and produces genetically suitable pollen. Bloom time is its whole own topic, but a simple analogy can illustrate the importance of trees blooming at the same time: if you show up a week late for your first date with a possible romantic partner, the chances are very low that you two will end up bearing children together.

Below are listed the different species of fruit tree that we sell at Cummins Nursery, and whether or not they require a pollenizer.

Fruit CategoryNeeds Pollination?
AppleAlmost all apple trees require a second variety for cross-pollination.
European PearAlmost all pear trees require a second variety for cross-pollination.
Asian PearSome Asian pears will set fruit without cross-pollination, but crops are improved when a second variety is present.
Peach and NectarinePeaches and nectarines are self-fertile.
ApricotMost apricots will set fruit without cross-pollination, but crops are improved when a second variety is present.
Sweet CherryMany sweet cherries require a second variety for cross-pollination.
Tart CherryMost tart cherries will set fruit without cross-pollination, but crops are improved when a second is present.
European PlumMany European plums are self-fertile, but even these varieties will benefit from cross-pollination.
Japanese PlumMost Japanese plums require a second variety for cross-pollination.
Hybrid PlumMost hybrid plums will set fruit without cross-pollination, but crops are improved when a second variety is present.
QuinceQuince trees are self-fertile, but cropping will be improved by cross-pollination.

Apple

The vast majority of apples require another apple of a different variety to act as a pollenizer in order to set fruit. Many people with limited space choose crab apple trees as pollenizers because of their reliable and abundant bloom, and because they make beautiful landscaping trees. 

A handful of varieties are incompatible with certain other varieties because they are too closely related. For example, Golden Delicious cannot be used as a pollen partner with Gala, or Jonagold, as these are offspring of Golden Delicious. 

Whatever you choose as a pollenizer, be sure to check three things: that your trees have compatible bloom times, that neither tree is triploid, and that your pollen partners are planted within 100 feet of each other. A more ideal spacing is within 50 feet.

Triploids

A handful of apple varieties belong to the genetic category “triploid.” This means that these apple varieties have three sets of chromosomes, rather than the more normal two sets found in diploid apples. Trees that are triploid produce pollen that is unable to pollinate other apple trees, and this creates a special situation for the home gardener. If you have decided that you simply must have a tree that is classed as triploid, you need to have not just one but two other apple varieties present in order to achieve full pollination. (The first pollenizer will pollinate the triploid, and the second pollenizer will pollinate the first pollenizer, which the triploid cannot do.)

For people with larger gardens or mini orchards, ploidy is not typically an issue, as there are usually several varieties of apple present. However, growers with just one or two trees need to be aware of triploids. The majority of the triploid varieties are heirlooms and they tend to be quite vigorous trees that produce larger than average fruits. On our website, all triploid apples are listed as such on their variety pages. Here are some of the triploid apple varieties sold at Cummins Nursery:

  • Ashmead’s Kernel
  • Bramley’s Seedling
  • Gravenstein
  • Jonagold
  • Liberty
  • Mutsu / Crispin
  • Newtown Pippin
  • Roxbury Russet
  • Winesap
  • Zabergau Reinette

Self-Fertile Apples 

A handful of apples are self-fertile, which means that they can pollinate themselves and will set fruit without another apple tree nearby. Some apples are “partially” self-fertile, which means that they can produce a crop without a pollenizer, but cropping might be poor. In both cases, it is our recommendation that the pollination prospects of the tree be improved by a pollenizer. However, if you have room for only one tree, these are the varieties to consider:

  • Self-Fertile: Alkmene, Cox Queen, Dabinett, Dolgo Crab, Granny Smith, Grimes Golden, Hewe’s Crab/Virginia Crab, Robert’s Crab
  • Partially Self-Fertile: Anna, Cortland, Egremont, Empire, Gala, Golden Hornet, Jonathan, Kerr, Michelin, Saint Edmund’s Russet, Spartan, Sturmer Pippin, Vilberie, Yellow Transparent

European Pear

The vast majority of European pears require another pear of a different variety for cross-pollination in order to set fruit. 

The only significant compatibility issues with the pears in our catalog are as follows: 

  • Seckel does not partner well with Bartlett or Potomac.
  • Magness does not provide viable pollen and should not be used as a pollenizer. 

A handful of European pears are partially self-fertile, which means that they can pollinate themselves and will set fruit without another pear tree nearby, but cropping might be poor. In this case, it is our recommendation that the pollination prospects of the tree be improved by a pollenizer. However, if you have room for only one tree, these are the varieties to consider: Anjou, Bartlett, Comice, and Kieffer. Seckel is found to be self-fertile in warmer climates. 

European pears are pollen compatible.

Asian Pear

Asian pears are a mixed bunch. Some are considered self-fertile, some are partially self-fertile, and some need a pollinizer. We recommend that a pollenizer be planted for all Asian pears, as this will improve fruit set regardless of the level of self-fertility.

Asian pears are pollen compatible.

Peach and Nectarine

Peaches and nectarines are the easiest fruits of all when it comes to pollination. All the peach and nectarine varieties in the Cummins Nursery cataloge are self-fertile and do not require a pollination partner. 

Apricot

The majority of apricot trees are self-fertile, but even these trees will crop much more abundantly when they are cross-pollinated by another variety of apricot. This is especially true of apricots because they bloom so early; cross-pollination will maximize the number of pollinated blooms and so that you are more likely to enjoy a crop even if the weather turns cold during bloom.

Apricot shoppers should be aware that most apricot varieties will not bloom until their third or fourth year.

Sweet Cherry

Sweet cherries are perhaps the most complicated of the fruits when it comes to pollination. The majority of sweet cherries require a pollination partner, but there are complex issues of genetic incompatibility between the different varieties.

Fortunately, there are a number of sweet cherries that are self-fertile and these are considered to be “universal pollinators.” We recommend that anyone who wants just one or two sweet cherry trees get started by planting a self-fertile universal pollinator. This way all the complicated questions about compatibility can be avoided.

If at least one cherry in your garden is self-fertile, then you just need to make sure that any other cherries have compatible bloom times if they are not also self-fertile.

Self-Fertile Universal Pollenizers

  • Sold at Cummins Nursery: Black Gold®, Sweetheart, White Gold®.
  • Others: Benton, Big Star, Blaze Star, Cashmere, Celeste, Columbia , Early Star, Glacier, Index, Lala Star, Lapins, Santina, Selah, Skeena , Sonata, Staccato, Stardust, Stella (except with Bing), Sunburst, Symphony, Tehranivee, Vandalay.

Step two is to check that you are not trying to pair two cherries that have incompatible bloom times.

For those who are curious, the main difficulty with cherries is that for each non self-fertile variety there are generally a small number of other varieties that are incompatible pollenizers because they are too genetically similar. These cherries, when they meet each other, cannot cross-pollinate for essentially the same reason that they are not self-fertile: the genetic composition of the pollen must be different in order for pollination to occur.

The incompatibility of certain cherry varieties can be represented by showing the different genetic groups. If any two trees that belong to the same genetic group, they will be incompatible.

If any two trees that belong to the same genetic group, they will be incompatible.

Cherry Genetic Groups (varieties in the same group are incompatible)

  1. Black Tartarian, Early Rivers, Summit
  2. Van, Venus, Windsor, Samba, Early Robin, Cristalina, Sonnet, Oktavia, Olympus, Regina
  3. Emperor Francis, Kristin, Somerset, Burgundy Pearl, Bing, Napoleon, Lambert
  4. Victor, Viva, Vogue
  5. NY 1625
  6. Gold, Hartland, NY 9295
  7. Hedelfingen, NY 9801
  8. Schmidt, Royalton, Sam
  9. Hudson, Rainier, Sylvia, Rainier, Republican, Viscount
  10. Vic
  11. Chelan, Burlat
  12. RadiancePearl®
  13. BlackPearl®

Tart Cherry

Tart cherries are self-fertile. This said, there is some evidence to suggest that the cropping of Hungarian tart cherries in particular (Balaton, Danube, and Jublieum) is improved by the presence of a sweet cherry pollenizer. 

European (Prunus domestica)

Many European plums are self-fertile: Autumn Swet, Blue Damson, Blues Jam, Brooks, Castleton, Green Gage, Imperial Epineuse, Italian, Jam Session, Oullins Golden Gage, Stanley, Victoria, and Yellow Egg are all known to be partly or fully self-fertile. These will, nevertheless, crop more abundantly in the presence of a pollination partner. 

European plums do not cross pollinate with Japanese plums. 

Because so little is known about plum pollination, the safest course generally is to plant at least two different varieties of European plum together. 

Japanese Plum (Prunus salicina)

Most Japanese plums require a pollenizer. There are a few self-fertile varieties, such as AU Rosa and Methley, but higher productivity and improved fruit quality can be obtained with cross-pollination. 

Japanese plums do not cross pollinate with European plums, but they are compatible with hybrid plums.

Because so little is known about plum pollination, the safest course generally is to plant at least two different varieties of Japanese or hybrid plum together. 

Hybrid Plum

Most hybrid plums require a pollenizer. There are a few self-fertile varieties, such as Santa Rosa (reliably self-fertile only in warmer climates), but higher productivity and improved fruit quality can be obtained with cross-pollination. 

The majority of hybrid plums are crosses of Japanese and hardy American varieties. As you would expect, hybrids are best pollinated by other hybrids or by Japanese plums.

Because so little is known about plum pollination, the safest course generally is to plant at least two different varieties of Japanese or hybrid plum together. 

Quince

If you know what a quince tree is, you probably also know that quinces are usually self-fertile. This said, the presence of a pollenizer will contribute to more reliable croppingnand improved fruit quality.

More

Pollenizer Search: Find Pollination Partners for Your Trees

Fruit Tree Bloom Dates






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