Apples of Your Eye- page 1 | Science | Smithsonian

Apples of Your Eye

Fruit sleuths and nursery owners are fighting to save our nation's apple heritage...before it's too late

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Sixteen years ago, when I worked at The Planters & Designers garden center in Bristol, Virginia, old-timers frequentlycame in and asked for apple varieties called Virginia Beauty and Yellow Transparent. I tried to look them up infruit tree catalogs, but I could never find them. The more they asked me, the more intrigued I became. Though I came from along line of nursery men, I knew little about fruit varieties ofthe past, a subject called historical pomology.

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Of course, that was before Henry Morton drove into the gravel parking lot at the garden center in the spring of 1988. He was wearing blue jeans and a button-downshirt; I figured he was a customer who had come to buy a rose bush and a bag of manure and be on his way. But Morton, a Baptist preacher from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, slapped me on the back, cornered me in the blue rug junipers and proceeded to try to sell me a Limbertwig. A Limbertwig?

"Limbertwigs vary in size, shape, color, quality and tree habit," said Morton, "but they all have one distinguishing characteristic, and that is their distinct Limbertwig flavor." I must have looked puzzled, so he told me that a Limbertwig was an old-fashioned apple.

It turns out that Mr. Morton spread not only the Gospel but some of the best-tasting apple varieties ever grown, many of them old lines or antique cultivars, rescued from the edge of extinction—varieties such as Moyer's Spice, Walker's Pippin, Sweet Bough, and Black Limbertwig. His 11- by 17-inch price list named some 150 varieties—including the Virginia Beauty ($5 for a five-foottree) and the Yellow Transparent ($5). Our meeting was the beginning of a friendship that would add some poetry to my rootball-toting life. For I would taste these mouthwatering apples at Morton's hillside nursery, and learn that the dark red, nearly black, Virginia Beauty is one of the best late keepers (apple parlance for a variety that ripens late and keeps well into the winter) you could ever sink your teeth into: sweet and juicy, with hints of cherry and almond. Yellow Transparent, also called June Apple, is almost white when fully ripe. Its light flesh cooks up in about five minutes and makes exquisite buttermilk biscuits. Once I'd sampled these old varieties, a Red Delicious or a Granny Smith never bore a second look.

Largely because of Morton, in 1992 my wife and I opened a small mail-order nursery that specializes in antique apple trees in general and old Southern apples in particular. We started buying stock wholesale from Morton and then reselling the trees. Not surprisingly, Virginia Beauty becameone of our biggest hits.

Along the way I discovered the sheer magnitude of America's long love affair with the apple. Today, only 15 popular varieties account for more than 90 percent of U.S.production. That wasn't always so. By 1930, Southerners alone had developed nearly 1,400 unique apple varieties, while more than 10,000 flourished nationwide. They came warts and all, some with rough, knobby skin, others as misshapen as a potato, and they ranged from the size of cherries to nearly as big as a grapefruit, with colors running the entire spectrum—flushed, striped, splashed and dottedin a wonderful array of impressionistic patterns.

Sadly, more than a thousand of these old Southern varieties are thought to be extinct. But Morton, who died a decade ago, and a handful of other hobbyists and independent nurserymen clung to the idea that many of these so-called extinct apple varieties might be living on, hidden from view in some obscure or overgrown orchard. Most of the apple trees planted in the past century, called old-timeor full-size, can live 75 years or longer, even under conditions of complete neglect. The apple sleuths questioned elderly gardeners, placed ads in periodicals and, in time, discovered that more than 300 Southern apple varieties were still flourishing. Today, with most pre-World War II orchards either gone or seriously in decline, time is running out to find other lost varieties.

When my grandfather, himself a retired nurseryman, learned of my interest in historical pomology, he handed me a manila envelope full of old fruit lithographs that had belonged to his father. "Dad sold fruit trees back in the '20s and '30s, he said. "These are from the plate book he used to carry."

When I spread the images out on my grandmother's pedestal kitchen table, it was as though my family tree were bringing forth fruit in its season. I marveled at the richly colored images of Maiden's Blush (waxen yellow with its cheek reddened toward the sun); Black Ben Davis (deep red, slightly conical, prized for its high-quality preserves); Johnson's Fine Winter (orangy red, queerly lopsided—yet deemed the "imperial of keepers"). I would learn as well that my grandfather's grandfather, C. C. Davis, started out in the nursery business back in 1876—and that virtually all of the more than 100 fruit varieties he propagated are now considered rare or extinct.

In the 19th century, fruit gardens were as common as vegetable or rose gardens are today. "Fine fruit is the flower of commodities," wrote Andrew Jackson Downing, author of the 1845 Fruits and Fruit Trees of America. "It is the most perfect union of the useful and the beautiful that the earth knows. Trees full of soft foliage; blossoms fresh with spring beauty; and, finally,—fruit, rich, bloom-dusted, melting, and luscious—such are the treasures of the orchard and garden, temptingly offered to every landholder in this bright and sunny, though temperate climate."

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