Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Let's Drink to Apples!

My husband and I have taken many, many evening walks down our road over the years. As far as country roads go in these parts, this one provides some interesting scenery. There are the neighbors that have an assortment of animals, a cemetery that has many familiar names, and we cross two creeks lined with wildflowers.

Many years ago, we also noticed a mature apple tree growing in the deeper ditch on the west side of the road about three-quarters of a mile south of our house. I've always been curious as to how it got there, knowing that there are random apple trees planted by Johnny Appleseed in our general area.

Logic tells me that while it's fun to fantasize, that tree more than likely grew from an apple that got tossed out the car window after someone long ago enjoyed it as a snack. And if that was the case, then it's highly unlikely that Johnny Appleseed had anything to do with planting it.

John Chapman planted several apple orchards as he traveled these parts, but the trees he planted didn't produce eating apples. Apples eaten for their fruit didn't become popular until the last century. Until that time, apples were almost exclusively used for cider.

This is because apples don't come true to seed and though they grow readily this way, the resulting fruit is almost always very, very sour. Henry David Thoreau described the taste of apple fruit as sour enough "to set a squirrel's teeth on edge and make a jay scream." So how do we get those deliciously sweet varieties such as 'Honeycrisp', 'Gala' and 'Jazz'?

Just like other new cultivars are created by crossing two varieties with the desired traits, so it is with apples, but because of their extreme variability, once a favorable result has been found, propagation is done by budding or grafting.

I personally learned about apple genetics by reading The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan as well as watching the PBS series by the same name. It never occurred to me that the apple wasn't commonly eaten until our not-so-distant past.

Like so many heirlooms, the apple varieties have dwindled to just a fraction of what used to be grown years ago. Back when they were open-pollinated, there were no less than 7500 different varieties of apples. Cultivated varieties for commercial use have basically created a relative monoculture, but apple enthusiasts are growing some of the older heirlooms in greater numbers.

The U.S. is number two in the world's apple production (China is number one), but apples aren't native to our country. They originated in what is now Kazakhstan and were brought to the U.S. by the Puritans. 'Red Delicious' currently leads all varieties in production.

I've not tasted the apples growing on the tree in that nearby ditch, mainly because there's a huge swath of poison ivy in the way of being able to reach the tree. But my curiosity may get the better of me and I might just have to figure out a way to pick that apple. I feel a bit like Eve...

Previously published as "Let's Drink to Apples!" by Kylee Baumle in the Paulding Progress newspaper in October 2013.  Reprinted and modified here with permission.


Tom Barrett said...

Interesting post. I have been fascinated by apples for some time, and back in March planted 5 apple trees here in North Florida. So far so good. We'll see how things turn out in about 3 - 4 years!

Susanne Drazic said...

Interesting post, Kylee. Honeycrisp is one of our favorites.

Dave said...

Great info! We recently juiced a bunch of Gala apples to turn them into hard cider. It's amazing how many apples it actually takes to get cider.

Peter Watson said...

Hmmm never knew there was quite so many varieties. In Australia we generally only get 4-5 varieties. Red Delicious (dark Red), Granny Smith (light green), Pink Lady (multicoloured pink & green), and Royal Gala (multicoloured red with yellowish stripes)

Jeff Morgan said...

The best time of year is October to early November when you can visit the cider mill or local market and purchase a fresh supply of apple cider.

My hometown has a old cider mill still in operation to this day, and they let you watch the whole process. Every year we went to the mill, we knew it was the start of the holidays.

Fond memories!

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