Volume 12, Issue 40 ~ September 30-October 6 2004
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Earth Journal
by Gary Pendleton


October is the time to enjoy the wholesome fruit of the apple tree. Whether served in a pie, made into sauce or taken raw, apples are the essential American fruit. No native fruit — neither the persimmon, nor blueberry nor cranberry — is more closely associated with this country than the apple.

But like so many of us Americans, the apple is an immigrant. Crab apple trees are native to the U.S., but the domestic apple, of which there are many varieties, is an Asian migrant.

In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan describes how the apple has relied on assistance from humans to adapt itself to a wide range of climates throughout the world. Like my ancestors, and perhaps yours, the forebearers of the domesticated apple were not native to this continent. The wild apple species that is the progenitor of the many varieties of domestic apples we enjoy comes from Kazakhstan. One of Pollan’s themes is that in America, the apple adapted to domestic soils and climates just as early immigrants did. Adaptation resulted in new apple varieties as distinct from their ancestors as the American people were distinct from Europeans.

Well known American varieties include York, Stayman Winesap, Red Delicious and Grimes Golden. If you want a good baking apple for your truly American apple pie, use Arkansas Black or Idared if you can find them; avoid the Australian bred Granny Smith.

An odd characteristic of apple trees is that they do not grow “true” from seed. If you plant an apple seed, it should bear fruit in six or seven years, but the apples it produces will be very different from its parent and almost certainly unfit for eating. An apple tree is capable of producing tens of thousands of seeds within a normal life span. If all those seeds were planted, each tree would produce fruit possessing varying qualities of sweetness, juiciness and firmness. Few if any would be good for anything except making cider. Still, this abundance of genetic variety is one reason the apple adapts so well to a wide range of conditions.

Only one seed in a million, give or take a few thousand, has the combination of genes to produce a tree capable of bearing fruit in the same class as a Jonogold, Stayman or Rome Beauty. When such a tree emerges from the ranks of the bitter and sour, it can only be reproduced by grafting a branch onto the trunk of another tree.

In the early 20th century, the discovery of a good-tasting apple variety was the equivalent of discovering oil. A farmer who produced such a tree could strike it rich by licensing and marketing a successful variety. Today, many old-fashioned varieties are difficult to find. They have lost out to a small number of relatively bland but pretty varieties that ship and store well, qualities that chain grocery stores prefer over taste.

It can be fun to visit orchards with roadside stands to seek out unusual varieties. Southern Maryland is not blessed with an abundance of orchards, but there are a few. On Rt. 231 just two miles west of the Benedict Bridge, George Rabbitt operates Benedict Orchard. Among the 500-plus apple trees, there are some unusual varieties worth seeking out, such as the Turley Winesap and Black Twig. The Macoun, a small, tart green variety, has inspired a group of enthusiastic consumers, according to orchardist Rabbitt.

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