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Planting roots for healthy living

Groups aim to set 100 pairs of apple trees across Boston

Michael Phillips of Grovetown, N.H., finished off planting an apple tree during the Boston Tree Party inauguration on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Lisa Gross, standing to the side in yellow, is an artist who created the campaign.
By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / April 11, 2011

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The patch of grass on Dixfield Street in South Boston, flanked by apartment buildings, hardly seems like an ideal place to set down roots for a pair of heirloom apple trees.

But this is where residents, later this month, will plant the trees they hope will eventually bear fruit as they grow tall and flower alongside a lonely Siberian elm.

Trees in urban areas, with their roots constrained by concrete and brick, have a shorter life span than their rural counterparts, and “little by little we are losing our big trees,’’ said Mike Kissinger, whose group, Planet Southie, will join another group to plant and tend the two apple trees.

The planting is part of a new campaign called the Boston Tree Party, launched yesterday on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. The idea is to nourish urban areas by planting 100 pairs of heirloom apple trees this spring across the city at schools, churches, and in community gardens.

Lisa Gross, a Cambridge artist who created the campaign in October, said the effort builds connections over the issue of healthy eating among disparate community groups and individuals.

“These trees will not care for themselves,’’ said Gross at the campaign’s inauguration yesterday on the Greenway. “They will require love, attention, and stewardship. That is why we are not just plopping down trees willy-nilly through the city. We are starting with communities . . . who want to plant and care for these trees.’’

Supporters welcomed the Tree Party with fanfare and the ceremonial planting of a golden russet and a Grimes golden. With help from local children, pomologist Michael Phillips, who specializes in fruit trees, dug a hole in the greenway and planted the pair. Afterward he led a blessing of the tree and poured apple cider on the trees. He and the group then danced around the trees while one reveler hoisted a moose antler, and others beat pots and pans to ward off evil spirits.

Groups with two pieces of land 15 feet in diameter can join the delegation, and those that don’t have land can partner with organizations that do. Each group will get a tree-planting kit and will have access to workshops on caring for the trees.

More than two dozen groups have formed so-called delegations so far, with many expected to plant on April 29, Arbor Day, the national tree planting fete.

Boston was the site of the nation’s first apple orchard on Beacon Hill, and it boasts America’s oldest variety of apple — the Roxbury Russet, developed in Roxbury in the 1600s.

At one point, Roxbury and Dorchester were filled with orchards.

Those orchards have given way to three-deckers, brownstones, and concrete. But local groups and institutions have been reviving an appetite for locally grown foods and healthy eating, including the City of Boston and its abundant farmers markets. Recently the city launched an urban farming effort in parts of Dorchester.

“This is a wonderful, very public conversation about making healthy food accessible and really knitting the city together, one apple tree at a time,’’ said Edith Murnane, the mayor’s food policy director, in an interview at the inauguration yesterday. “It’s a powerful metaphor of how we come together.’’

Indeed, many groups are finding common ground around the apple tree.

In Somerville, for instance, the city has teamed with community groups to plant two apple trees at the Blessing of the Bay Boathouse, an area along the Mystic River targeted for improvements by the city. In North Cambridge, groups plan to plant apple trees outside the Peabody School. John Bunker, who researches and saves rare apple trees, hailed the Tree Party for taking a bold initiative.

“Growing a tree is not rocket science,’’ he said. “Anyone can do it. But someone has to do it.’’

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com.