Growing fruit trees in Alaska can be a challenge due to the harsh winters and short growing seasons.
Luckily, the sheer size of the state means that the climate does extend beyond the bleak iciness that many assume it to be.
Let’s take a look at some of the hardiest fruit trees you can grow in AK.
1. Norland Apple (Malus norland)
There are a handful of apple varieties that are suitable for the Last Frontier. The apples that grow in Alaska are the hardiest around, as they have to be capable of surviving the obscenely cold winters and jumping into fruit production during the short growing season.
The Norland Apple is a Canadian apple, and there are fruit-bearing trees in Fairbanks, Palmer, and Anchorage. Genetically, this tree is a semi-dwarf, with an upright and spreading habit. It’s a precocious variety and can become very productive. The fruit is oblong/conical in shape, with a greenish/yellow background overlaid with red.
The flesh is cream and slightly coarse, with mild acidity but a good flavor overall. If picked slightly immature, it’ll store for up to 16 weeks, and can be enjoyed fresh or cooked. In southcentral AK, the Norland apple ripens in early to mid-September.
Other Common Names: Norland Apple
Growing Zones: Hardy to zone 2
Average Size at Maturity: 15-20 ft tall and 15-20 ft wide
Other Apple Varieties Suitable for Alaska: Nor-Series, Westland, Parkland, Golden Uralian, Geneva Early Apple, Carrol, Vista Bella, Red Duchess
Flowering Season: Showy clusters of mildly fragrant, white flowers with pink overtones in mid-spring
Whilst sweet cherries will struggle in AK, tart cherries often manage to produce a crop in some areas. The North Star Dwarf Cherry was developed by the University of Minnesota and was bred for its cold adaptability and the fast production of delicious cherries. The fruit can be eaten straight off the tree, cooked, or baked into many preparations.
The North Star Dwarf Cherry has an upright, vase-shaped growing habit with spreading branches. It’s self-fertile, meaning you won’t require any other pollinator trees around to ensure fruit production. Its dwarf size makes it suitable for any type of yard; small or large. It’ll grow in chalk, sand, or loam, in acidic, alkaline, or neutral conditions. Full sun in well-drained soil is best.
Clusters of white flowers appear among the branches in late spring. The bloom is followed by heavy clusters of light red fruit in the early to mid-summer. The fruit is resistant to cracking and will remain hanging on the tree until picked (or eaten by birds.)
Other Common Names: Tart Cherry ‘North Star,’ Dwarf Cherry ‘North Star.’
Growing Zones: 4-8
Average Size at Maturity: 8-10 ft tall and 6-8 ft wide
Flowering Season: Late spring
Plums aren’t the easiest fruit to grow in AK, but with some special attention in certain zones, you can get them to grow. According to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Manchurian Plum is the only proven hardy variety for southcentral AK.
You’ll need more than one Manchurian plum tree for cross-pollination. They’re seed-grown so quality will vary. Plums tolerate heavier soils and more exposed locations than cherry trees.
Prunus americana is often used as a rootstock for Japanese-American plum hybrids. They are said to be hardy in Anchorage and throughout zone 3. Some Japanese-American hybrids to experiment with are listed below.
Getting plum trees pollinated can be tricky for AK gardeners, so be sure to plant pollinator-friendly plants nearby to attract honeybees, bumblebees, and other beneficial insects.
Other Common Names: Plum
Growing Zones: 3-9
Average Size at Maturity: 10-25 ft tall and 6-25 ft wide
Other Varieties Suitable for Alaska: Superior, Pembina, Pipestone, Sapa, Underwood, Toka
Flowering Season: Late May- Early June
4. Manchurian Apricot (Prunus mandshurica)
Manchurian apricots are the only variety suited for the winters in southcentral AK. Like the Manchurian plum, they’re seed propagated, so vary in quality. Apricots should be planted in the warmest and sunniest location available. They are self-fertile, but ripening dates, size, and taste will vary.
Apricots can be grafted onto plum rootstocks for heavier soils that are less well-drained. Growing apricot in AK is largely an experiment, but if you’re up for some trial and error and want to get your teeth stuck into the delicious fruit, then try your hand at some of the varieties listed below.
Other Common Names: Manchurian Apricot
Growing Zones: 3-7
Average Size at Maturity: 15-20 ft tall and 15-20 ft wide
Other Varieties Suitable for Alaska: Precious, Adirondack Gold, Westcot, Morden 604, Debbie’s Gold, Sunrise, Moongold, and Sungold (require each other for cross-pollination), Puget Gold, Strathmore, Goldcot
Flowering Season: Mid-to-late May
5. Pear (Pyrus spp.)
Many of the pear varieties that you can grow in Alaska aren’t self-fertile and will require cross-pollination. To encourage this, it’s advised to plant at least two different varieties close together and to encourage pollinating insects into your garden.
Most pear varieties take longer to produce than apples, cherries, apricots, or plums do, often taking between 5-8 years.
According to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Ussurian pears are the only variety considered truly winter hardy in Fairbanks and Anchorage, but their fruit is incredibly small and sour.
Other Common Names: Common Pear
Growing Zones: 1-8
Average Size at Maturity: 20-30 ft tall and 15-20 ft wide
Other Varieties Suitable for Alaska: Luscious, Ure, Nova, Clapps Favorite, Hudar (hardy to zones 1 and 2), Summer Crisp
Flowering Season: Early spring
6. Crabapple (Malus sylvestris)
Crabapples are famed for their incredible ability to tolerate extremely cold temperatures. The Siberian crabapple is considered one of the cold-hardiest fruit trees on the planet and grows in inhospitably cold areas of Siberia, Mongolia, and Nepal.
As well as their cold-hardiness, they’re also tolerant of many pests that plague commonly cultivated apple varieties.
Whilst crabapples can be eaten raw, many have a coarse texture and tart flavor. However, they are full of pectin which makes them perfect for turning into preserves of all kinds.
Grow crabapples in loamy, well-drained, slightly acidic soil.
Other Common Names: Crab-apple tree
Growing Zones: 2-7
Average Size at Maturity: 25-50 ft tall and 15-40 ft wide
Other Varieties Suitable for Alaska: Siberian Crabapple (Malus baccata), Dolgo, Columbia
Flowering Season: Mid-spring
More Than Just Ice
Whilst the state of Alaska is best known for its icy wilderness and beautiful mountain landscapes, fruiticulture doesn’t necessarily spring to mind. There are many different types of trees to grow in Alaska for the home gardener to choose from, including maples as well as fruit trees.
If you choose the right varieties, then the harsh winters and short growing seasons of Alaska can produce a bountiful harvest for you, provided you’re willing to experiment and be patient.