Tornado Tree links apple grower to deadly day in Edmonton history

 Credit: John Lucas/Edmonton Journal

Credit: John Lucas/Edmonton Journal

 EDMONTON - Richard Heetun’s lush garden sprouted from a twig uprooted by Edmonton’s deadly 1987 tornado.

He was one of the first rescue workers at the scene when the storm roared through the city’s east end. Amid the debris and casualties, he noticed a twig lying in a ditch.

“There was a little root sticking out of it. I just grabbed it for some reason out of remembrance,” he said.

Heetun planted the twig at Kuhlmann’s Market Garden, where he turned his attention to growing a record-breaking 11.8 metric tonnes of tomatoes for his employer in one year. When he moved to his newly built home in 1990, he reclaimed the budding twig. It was the first tree he planted.

Twenty-three years later, its height reaches six metres. Heetun calls it the Tornado Tree.

The tree is the centrepiece of Heetun’s remarkable home garden, which boasts 40 varieties of apples on five trees, out of the 100 varieties available in Edmonton.

“We’re trying to spread the message that growing apples is basically like an art. If you consider how many apples have been grafted here, it looks like a multicultural society,” Heetun said Tuesday while giving a tour of the garden.

Apple lovers will salivate at his offerings, from Parkland to red delicious to McIntosh. The apples are still growing in mid-July, but Heetun expects them to swell to commercial size by August. That’s when the garden resembles a B.C. orchard, he said.

Heetun has extended his green thumb to pears, cherries, Saskatoon berries and goji berries. The key to his garden’s diversity is grafting, which involves taking a branch off a tree and planting it on another compatible branch.

“The grafted branch becomes a part of the original tree, and the branch that’s produced has different fruit,” said Mohyuddin Mirza, a retired horticulturalist and Heetun’s longtime friend.

Mirza said he’s always been interested in maximizing the production of diverse crops in Edmonton, where frost-free days are few. By surviving the city’s frigid winters, Heetun’s garden has proven remarkably useful for study. In the winter, Heetun piles metres of snow at the base of the trees, giving them enough moisture to thrive in the early spring.

Word of mouth about Heetun’s apple oasis has spread among gardening aficionados and curious onlookers, prompting him to host open houses since 2011.

“There were tourists visiting from West Edmonton Mall who came here by taxi. They were from Japan and somehow found it,” he said. “I had people from Red Deer, Leduc and as far as Lloydminster who asked if I was interested in creating a garden in their farms.”

Heetun will reopen his doors this August at 15435 65th St., where he’ll host daily tours from noon to 7 p.m.

“The whole idea is to promote this industry of growing apples. The potential of growing apples in Edmonton is huge, but people don’t even know about it.”

It’s a strange notion for a man who was born into horticulture. Heetun was raised in the island of Mauritius, off the southeast coast of Africa, where a belief abounded that those who grew apple trees prospered. Heetun’s father taught him grafting at a young age, while apples were his mother’s favourite fruit.

His years of experience have infused artistry into Heetun’s grafting. He quickly snips the branch and rocks a knife in its middle to avoid damaging the tissue, splitting it in half. His weathered, dark fingers pluck a small scion, which he carefully chisels at the top, exposing its food and water system. Opening the cut, he inserts the scion and tapes it together.

How often does Heetun graft? “Whenever I’m in a good mood,” he mused. About 75 different methods of grafting exist, all of which he can perform.

He can fashion a heart tree, for instance, by cutting a shorter branch and encircling it with a larger branch. Twisting branches into the shape of a serpent is called the Garden of Eden.

Heetun has never sought to profit from his apples, though. He gives them away to church communities, and snacks on three of them for lunch.

Still, visitors who benefit from Heetun’s encyclopedic knowledge tend to offer him donations. He hopes to collect enough to open an organic fruit tree orchard in five years. It would be situated at the future site of a Muslim mosque on Meridian Street.

But these days, Heetun simply enjoys sitting on his patio, basking in the garden that’s flourished over the past 23 years. “It’s a personal satisfaction because the winter is just long enough,” he said.

He turns his gaze to the former twig that flourished against all odds: the Tornado Tree.

Its budding apples and pears are clustered together, hiding in the shadows of the leaves. They hang from 27 grafts, commemorating the 27 lives lost that day.