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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This boast could not have been made 200 years before.When the first colonists arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, in1607, there were no cultivated fruit trees in America—save for a few scattered Indian plantings—only wild crab apples, cherries, plums and persimmons. Taking a bite into a persimmon, Capt. John Smith commented, could "draw a man's mouth awry."

How much Smith influenced the subsequent introduction of new fruits to America is unknown. What is clear is that many colonists brought seeds, cuttings and small plants on the voyage over from Europe. Among the first to take root here was the May Duke cherry, the Calville Blanc d'Hiver apple, the Moor Park apricot and the Green Gageplum. Over the course of the next 300 years, the New World would experience a virtual revolution in the number and quality of apple and other fruit varieties.

"The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to its culture," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1821. But it was less this noble sentiment than necessity, and thirst, that propelled America's early experimentswith fruit. "The apple was not brought to this country to eat, but to drink," says apple authority Tom Burford, whose family has been growing them since 1750. Jefferson's six-acre North Orchard was typical of family farms of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These so-called field or farm orchards averaged about 200 apple and peach trees each, bearing fruit for cider and brandy making, or for use as food for livestock. Farmers made applejack by placing fermented cider outside during the winter and removing the ice that formed, leaving a potent alcoholic liquid.

Unlike Europeans, most Americans did not have the luxury of propagating apple trees by cloning existing plants through budding or grafting. Grafting, which can be expensive and is labor intensive, is the only practical way to duplicate the exact characteristics of the parent tree. (It is done by joining a cutting, called a scion, to a rooted plant, called a rootstock. The scion grows and eventually bearsfruit.) The trees that colonists did bring over from Europe didn't do well in the harsher climate. As a result, most colonists planted apple seeds, which create haphazard results."Apples have . . . a dizzying mélange of inherited characteristics," writes Frank Browning, a journalist for National Public Radio who penned the book Apples in 1998."Any one 'mother' tree can produce a broad array of similar-looking apples whose seeds will produce 'daughter' apple trees that have completely different shapes . . . and create fruit with utterly different color, sweetness, hardiness,and shape." This rich genetic heritage makes the apple the hardiest and most diverse fruit on earth. But propagating apples is unpredictable.

A tree grown from an apple core thrown over the back fence usually bears fruit of only passable or inferior quality. But every once in a while, an apple with unusual and desirable characteristics arises. That is what happened time and again in cider orchards of the 17th and 18th centuries, orchards which served, in effect, as vast trial plots for the improvement of imported Old World stocks. Thus emerged,for instance, the small Hewes' Crab, possibly a cross between an apple of European stock and the crab apple, native to Virginia. In pressing the juice-filled Hewes' Crab for cider, wrote Philadelphia farmer Henry Wynkoop in 1814, "the liquor flows from the pumice as water from a sponge."

Many of these pippins, as the tree seedlings were called, thrived. By the mid-1780s, Jefferson could boast in a letter from Paris to the Rev. James Madison: "They have no apples to compare with our Newtown pippin." In fact, Virginia's Albemarle County, which includes Monticello, enjoyed a lucrative trade in exporting the Newtown Pippin to England.

One of the first American texts on pomology was written by William Coxe and published in 1817. A View of the Cultivation of Fruit Trees described "one hundred kinds of the most estimable apples cultivated in our country"—many of them true natives. And in 1869, Downing's revised edition of Fruits and Fruit Trees (edited by brother Charles, and even today considered the magnum opus of American pomology) described nearly 2,000 different apples, pears, peaches, plums and a host of lesser-known fruits—most of American origin.

That was the world in which John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, spread goodwill and goodseeds, trekking barefoot in a sackcloth shirt over Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana during the first half of the 19th century. The eccentric but resourceful Massachusetts native scouted routes along which pioneers would most likely settle. He bought land along these routes, on which he planted seedlings, which he would willingly dig up to sell to arriving settlers. By the 1830s, Chapman owned a string of nurseries that spread from western Pennsylvania, across Ohio and into Indiana. He died owning 1,200 acres of land in 1845. Chapman's story is about "how pioneers like him helped domesticate the frontier by seeding it with Old World plants," writes Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire. "Without them the American wilderness might never have become a home." Chapman's frontier nurseries no doubt produced many valuable new apples. Perhaps a few of them even made it into W. H. Ragan's USDA, Bulletin No. 56, Nomenclature of the Apple, the essential reference for apple aficionados, which in 1905 cataloged more than 14,000 different apple varieties.

But the golden age of American pomology would come to an abrupt end in the early 20th century. Inexpensive railway shipping and refrigeration enabled orchards to transport apples year-round. Home orcharding declined as suburbs emerged. And when that quintessential mass-market apple, the patented, inoffensively sweet and long-lasting Red Delicious, took hold in the early 1920s, many high-flavored heirlooms were effectively cut out of the commercial trade. Today's mass merchandisers tend to view apple varieties in terms of color, disease resistance, shelf life and their ability to be shipped long distances without bruising. Grocery stores often stock only one red, one green and one yellow variety, which usually means a Red Delicious, a Granny Smith and a Golden Delicious. And as any consumer knows, those big, beautiful and perfect-looking apples can often taste like sweetened sawdust. Still, the apple remains big business in this country: about 7,500 commercial apple producers in 36 states harvest a total volume of 48,000 tons, second in production only to China. The average American consumes some 16 pounds of fresh apples a year, making the apple second only to the banana as the nation's most popular fruit.

Creighton Lee Calhoun, Jr., of Pittsboro, North Carolina, may be the most influential heirloom apple sleuth on the job today. A retired Army colonel with degrees in agronomy and bacteriology, Calhoun started collecting old apple varieties in the early 1980s. "Early on, it was sort of like a treasure hunt," he says. "I'd go knock on doors and ask: 'What kind of tree is that?' Most of the time the people would say, 'I have no idea,' or 'Granny knew, but she died in '74.' " It took Calhoun two years to locate his first antique apple—a Southern variety called Magnum Bonum. In 1983, he found an old North Carolina apple called Summer Orange, prized for making pies. Calhoun tracked another apple to a farm owned by E. Lloyd Curl in Alamance County, in North Carolina's piedmont region. "Curl said tome, 'Yeah, back during the Depression, I would sell apple trees for a local nursery. They paid me 10 cents for every tree I sold, and this was one of the varieties the nursery had; they called it the Bivins.'"


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