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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Calhoun took a cutting from the tree and grafted it onto one in his backyard orchard. (One of his backyard trees would eventually host 36 different varieties, each new scion grafted to a different limb.) In 1986, Calhoun came across a1906 catalog from an old North Carolina nursery, which indicated that the Bivins was actually a New Jersey apple called Bevan's Favorite. It originated before 1842 and sold in the South as a high-quality summer-eating apple. But like so many others, it was neglected and eventually disappeared; if not for Calhoun, it might have been lost altogether .Eventually, he would rediscover almost 100 lost varieties: apples such as Chimney, Prissy Gum, Dr. Bush's Sweet, Carter's Blue (retrieved from the National Fruit Trust in Kent, England), Clarkes' Pearmain (grown byThomas Jefferson) and the Notley P. No. 1.

"I came to the conclusion that the South was losing an irreplaceable part of its agricultural heritage," says Calhoun.So, beginning in 1988, with the help of his wife, Edith, he poured his research into a book, Old Southern Apples, a veritable bible of old apple information. Calhounis encouraged by the new interest that his book and the work of other antique apple sleuths have generated over the past several years.

"In the past five years," he says, "people have been breaking out of the Red Delicious strait jacket and becoming more adventurous, seeking out and buying apples of different colors and flavors." In Washington State, for instance, Red Delicious production has fallen 25 percent over the past five years as commercial growers plant less well-known varieties, such as Braeburn, Jonagold, Gala, Cameo and Pink Lady.

While reading Calhoun's long list of extinct varieties, I came across a reference to an apple called the Reasor Green, which I knew from one of my family lithographs: a large green apple mottled with surface discolorations known as flyspeck and sooty blotch. (Nineteenth-century illustrators unabashedly recorded both beauty and blemish.) But what really caught my eye was the source for Calhoun's description: the 1887 Silver Leaf Nurseries catalog by my great-great-grandfather C. C. Davis. I had never seen a copy of the catalog, so I eventually got myself over to the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland, to check it out. Wearing the required white gloves, I openedit gingerly and began reading my great-great-grandfather's "Prefatory" remarks. "We have greatly extended our operations, the past few years," he wrote, "having confidence that the planting spirit already manifest will continue to increase till every table be fully supplied with wholesome refreshing fruits."

Alas, his optimism would prove misplaced. Of the 125 apple, pear, cherry, peach and plum varieties he describes, only a handful—the Winesap and Rome Beauty apples, and the Bartlett and Kieffer pears—are still grown widely today. Yet of the 60 apple varieties he lists, I now grow half of them in my nursery.

It is for me a very direct connection to the past. But some antique apple varieties live on in a more indirect form. Another old apple by the name of Ralls Genet, for example, was a favorite of Jefferson's. As the story goes, the third president obtained cuttings of it from his friend, Edmund Charles Genet, French minister to the United States, and gave some to local nurseryman Caleb Ralls. The subsequent Ralls Genet variety soon became a popular apple in the OhioValley because of its late bloom—which allows it to weather late-season frosts. It was crossed by Japanese breeders with the Red Delicious, and the resulting apple, released in 1962, went on to become the now commercially popular Fuji, which recently overtook the Granny Smith as the third most popular apple in the United States (behind the Red Delicious and the Golden Delicious). As Peter Hatch, director of gardens and grounds at Jefferson's Monticello, noted at a recent apple tasting, "We like to say that Thomas Jefferson was not only the author of the Declaration of Independence and the father of the University ofVirginia but perhaps the grandfather of the Fuji."

My own great-great-grandfather would no doubt be proud to know that I am growing the "Rawle's Janet" today—a variety that he, like many others of his time, misspelled. I suspect, however, that he would be even more pleased to know that I was able to propagate the Reasor Green in the spring of 2001. For it was my great-greatgrandfather, in 1886, who introduced that very apple to the trade after he found it in a neighbor's orchard. He grafted itonto existing trees and began selling cuttings, called whips.

Had I not read Lee Calhoun's book, I probably wouldn't have given the Reasor Green much thought. But when I saw the word "extinct" next to what amounted to a family heirloom, I was motivated to get out of the nursery and see what I could turn up. For me, that meant talking with family and any friends who might know where an old Reasor Green tree was still standing. And it didn't take long to get a hot lead. When I told my story to Harold Jerrell, an extension agent in Lee County, Virginia, where the Silve rLeaf Nurseries had been located, he said, "Yeah, I knowthat one's not extinct." He recommended that I contact Hop Slemp of Dryden, Virginia. So I called Slemp, a beef and tobacco farmer, who said that he did have a Reasor Green and invited me to stop by for a visit the third weekof October when the apples would be ready to pick. Would the Reasor Green—the regional pronunciation is Razor Green—turn out to be a "spitter," an apple so bitter that it provokes a universal response? Spitters, according toTom Burford, make up a disappointing 90 percent of all heirloom apples.

On the appointed October day, my four sons and I headed off in the family car, driving deep into the valleyridge province of southwest Virginia. By the time we pulled into Slemp's gravel driveway, the sun was already low in the hazy, autumn sky. Buckets of apples were spread haphazardly in his carport.

After a few minutes, the 65-year-old Slemp pulled up in his Ford pickup. We piled into it, headed east for a quartermile and turned onto a paved road that winds past scattered groves of tulip poplars and Virginia cedars. Finally, we pulled into a farm lane that had several apple trees planted beside it. Stopping at a heavy metal gate, we climbed out and inspected what Slemp calls an "old-timey Winesap," loaded with dull red apples. I picked one off the tree and took a bite, luxuriating in the snappy, vinous flavor. Then we gathered a couple dozen more to eat later.


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