Orchard owner cultivates education

CorrespondentSeptember 19, 2009 

  • Bullard's other interests include identification of birds, reptiles and amphibians (he is probably one of the few people who can identify the call of all of North Carolina's toads and frogs).

    He appears to have a photographic mind and can even recite decades of baseball statistics. "He is a true Renaissance man," Hooker says.

    Bullard has degrees in sociology and chemistry and a dental school degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He practiced dentistry in Mount Olive for 28 years, retiring in 1992.

Among A.J. Bullard's earliest memories is playing with his sister and other children among the apple, pear and Chinese chestnut trees on the Sampson County farm where he grew up. Today, he gathers fruit and nuts from pecan, persimmon, mayhaw, Japanese raisin, Chinese date and scores of other trees in his own orchard in Wayne County.

The orchard south of Mount Olive has about 40 species of fruit and nut trees and at least 150 varieties of fruits, nuts and grapes. It attracts horticulture students from N.C. State University and will be a tour stop for the Garden Writers Association, which is meeting in Raleigh this month.

Bullard, who is 70, credits an uncle for instilling his childhood interests in plants and gardening. The retired dentist has no formal horticulture training but maintains an almost fanatic passion for trees, shrubs and vines that produce edible nuts and fruits. He learns from lectures at the N.C. Botanical Garden and talks with professors at N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill. Each summer he takes field trips with the Cullowhee Native Plants Conference, and he's a member of the N.C. Native Plant Society.

Now the self-taught horticulturist teaches others. In 1998, he worked with the Environmental Protection Agency's Neuse River Project to teach the field crews about the native plants along the Neuse River. He also teaches fruit-tree grafting to agriculture extension agents in Wayne and Sampson counties.

Bullard's farm sits on a slight knoll of sandy loam soil, and among its first plantings in 1967 were pecan trees. Over the years, his collection has grown considerably and includes American natives such as blueberry, serviceberry, persimmon and mayhaw (a type of edible hawthorn). Exotic fruit trees include Japanese raisin, Chinese date or jujube and Chinese che (a relative of mulberry).

He grows about a dozen kinds of pomegranate and many forms of fig, dessert pear, nectarine and apple. Nut trees include English and black walnuts, pecans and chinquapin. Until the 1980s, he also grew various citrus trees, but temperatures down to 5 below zero on two occasions killed most of them.

Grapes are another of Bullard's infatuations. He grows more varieties of grape than any other fruit, about 30 kinds of muscadine and scuppernong.

"I use most of the orchard fruit myself," Bullard says, "as I prefer to eat them fresh, squeeze them for juice, dry them or freeze for winter use." His favorite fruit dessert is a pie made of a mixture of sweet mulberries and tart cherries. Another treat is a ripened pawpaw that tastes like a creamy mixture of custard and banana. It's the largest edible tree fruit in North America, but it is extremely perishable and is rarely seen in commerce, except occasionally at a farmers market.

A joy of a teacher

Bullard's tree interests extend beyond the orchard. He grows Southeast Asia's tung tree, from which furniture oil is extracted, and the Chinese tallow tree, introduced to America by Benjamin Franklin. His rarest plant is the Florida torreya, a yewlike tree native to the Florida Panhandle. A current project is growing all the species of oak native to North Carolina -- he has 26. He also grows tropical vines.

Will Hooker, a professor in the NCSU horticulture department, frequently takes students to see Bullard's collection -- the largest collection of fruit and nut trees in North Carolina. "Many consider Bullard the foremost orchardist and one of the best botanists in the Carolinas," Hooker says. "It is a joy to learn from him on each visit."

On a walk around the orchard with Bullard, you will not go far before he plucks a weed and asks you to identify it. It's deer tongue, he says, and tobacco companies used it to impart a pleasant, vanilla aroma to their products.

Bullard regularly assists classes at Mount Olive College in plant identification and on field trips. He helps the agricultural extension service of Wayne and Sampson counties identify local weeds sent in by county residents from their crop fields or yards. He also writes a weekly column for the Mount Olive Messenger called "Botany with Bullard," covering wide-ranging topics.

Bullard gets great pleasure from hosting garden club members, college classes and the master gardeners who frequently call on him for guided tours of the orchard. If the fruit is ripe, they're liable to leave with some of it. And even if the fruit isn't ready, they'll leave with some knowledge imparted by this master orchardist.

Bobby Ward lives and gardens in Raleigh. He is completing a book on the life of horticulturist J.C. Raulston. Contact him at biblio@nc.rr.com.

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