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Sweet Little Mysteries: Discovering Seattle's Hidden Orchards

Seattle's Carkeek Park has a secret.

Hidden in plain sight, on a steep south-facing hillside, just a few hundred yards down a trail from the Environmental Learning Center, you’ll find Piper’s Orchard.

This grassy slope was first planted more than a century ago, by Albert Piper and his wife, Wilhelmina, better known as Minna.

Piper was a confectioner by trade, but the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 destroyed his Pioneer Square business. So Albert Piper was forced to reinvent himself.

According to Don Ricks, one of the modern-day stewards of Piper’s Orchard, Piper bought some property and moved his family to the land that’s now part of Carkeek Park.

“He actually went up to Alaska for a while, and did some work there," Ricks says. "But eventually he came back here and established a homestead.”

Piper specialized in baking desserts, so it may not come as a surprise that the apple trees he and his wife chose to plant more than a century ago produce the kind fruit you’d use in pies and cakes. But even when the Pipers planted these apples, the varieties were diverse and rare, according to Adam Wargacki, another volunteer orchard tender.

“It’s a fun topic to contemplate, how these varieties were chosen,” Wargacki explains. “Because there is a great variety even compared with other orchards of similar age in the Pacific Northwest.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "A century-old apple tree twists and turns toward the sky in Carkeek Park.", "fid": "120794", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201509/007.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW photo/Marcie Sillman"}]]Seventeen of the Pipers' original apple trees survive and produce fruit, along with several pear and nut trees. That may be just plain luck.

In the mid-1920s, Albert Piper sold his property to the city of Seattle. Carkeek Park opened two years later. Then, as now, the city didn’t have a lot of money for maintenance, so Piper’s Orchard languished. Eventually, the trees were engulfed by ivy and blackberry vines. They stayed untouched for half a century.

Then, in the early 1980s, a landscape architect named Daphne Lewis was surveying the park for the city. According to Don Ricks, Lewis discovered the old orchard by accident.

“She came across this tree and said, ‘oh, that’s an apple tree!'”

Lewis and a crew of volunteers began to pull out the vines and uncovered gnarled and bent tree trunks. They realized the fruit trees had been planted intentionally. Lewis organized the orchard restoration and led in replanting dozens of heirloom apple trees.

More than 30 years later, the volunteer Friends of Piper’s Orchard tend to this slice of Seattle’s history.

This weekend Piper’s and more than a dozen other urban orchards will be stops on a self-guided orchard tour organized by the group City Fruit, which oversees these public orchards. (Find maps to some of these orchards.)

City Fruit director Catherine Morrison believes Seattle is different from most big metropolitan areas when it comes to fruit orchards. “As Seattle grew, we really maintained a lot of the agricultural core,” Morrison says. “For Seattle, that meant orchards.”

Seattle’s current rapid growth has forced city officials to grapple with whether to continue to preserve these open spaces in the city or to develop the land into affordable housing or transit hubs.

“There’s no perfect answer,” says Morrison. “Some land is good for orchards, other land for housing. The question is balance.”

Morrison and the other orchard stewards hope public officials will weigh the benefits of open space, agriculture, and city history, and set aside some land for urban fruit growers.