Apple tree fruiting: spurs or tip bearing

Bob Dluzen
The Detroit News

Broadly speaking, apples grow on trees in two basic configurations, spur bearing and tip bearing. The most common type we see nowadays are spur-bearing trees. 

Spurs are modified shoots usually less than six inches long with a sort of compressed growth structure. Each year they add a small amount of growth giving it the appearance of having wrinkled rings around the spur.

Spurs on an apple tree. Note how short they are.

A branch must be at least 2 years old before a spur can be produced. They sprout from the side and along the length of branches. Once a spur develops, it stays a spur from that point on.

Spur-bearing trees have more fruit buds per length of branch than do tip-bearing trees; they also tend to be shorter trees, have shorter branches and are slower growing. After several years the spurs get old and fruit quality will eventually decline. 

Some popular spur type varieties include Delicious, MacIntosh, Winesap, Empire, Starkspur and many others.

The other type of apple tree is tip bearing, also called non-spur or terminal bearers. As the name implies, tip bearers only set fruit on the very tip of longer shoots.

Flowers on a tip-bearing apple tree.

The tree itself has a vaguely weeping shape to it with the branches tending to grow downward. Tip-bearing varieties include Rome Beauty, Granny Smith and Cortland among others. Many older and heirloom varieties are tip bearers. 

The two different types of trees are trained and pruned in different ways. It's critical to prune each type correctly for fruit production. 

Without knowing which type you have, you can actually prevent a tree from producing apples with improper pruning. 

So how can you tell what type of tree you have? The apple blossoms themselves will let you know. 

Apples trees are beginning to bloom right now, so this is the perfect time to look at your trees to figure out what you have. 

If the flowers are growing out of short knobby looking structures along the length of the branch, it is a spur type tree. If you see flowers opening up only at the end of longer twigs it is a tip bearing or non-spur type. 

This unknown heirloom variety is both a tip bearer and spur bearer.

What if there are no flowers? It is possible you may have incorrectly pruned your tree and snipped off the flower producing twigs. In the case of tip-bearing trees, sometimes you'll see only a few flowers. That means you will have to change your pruning strategy from this point on to avoid removing the flower producing shoots.

Although there are two basic types of apple trees, some varieties of apples can have both traits to one degree or another.  

Just as different apple varieties produce fruit that have distinctive color, taste or texture, so do they have their own individual growing habits.