Friday, January 1, 2010

Saving the Apples

In 1872, there were over 1100 varieties of apples that were considered to be uniquely American. These trees were adapted to local conditions and were grown by farmers for reasons that included sweetness, cider suitability, ripening season, disease resistance, the ability to store and many other characteristics. They provided a genetic diversity that has largely disappeared in today's commercial apple market. There are several reasons for this disappearance. Many heritage varieties had short growing seasons, did not store well, or were easily bruised. In today's more industrialized market, commercial varieties are those that store well, have tough skins and have high visual appeal to supermarket customers. Taste has not been a high priority. The commercial varieties have been so heavily promoted that it is becoming increasingly rare to find heritage varieties being marketed. And the upshot is that many of the old varieties are being lost, despite often having superior taste and other qualities. In many cases, surviving varieties are represented by only a few remaining trees, located and identified by apple preservationists.

When Tom and I decided to plant apple trees, we opted for heritage varieties, with an emphasis on those that originated in this part of the country. We did a lot of homework to determine which were resistant to blight, likely to thrive in our heavy soils, would make good cider and would be good pollinators. The names of antique varieties are colorful and evocative, including names such as: Bedforshire Foundling, Five Crown Pippin and Homeburger Pancake, and they offer glimpses into a time long past. We found two growers in VA and NC who offered heritage apples and from their impressive array of choices, selected: Yellow June, Bevan's favorite, Grimes Golden,Limbertwig, Kinnaird's Choice, Joseph's, Red Limbertwig, Horse, Golden Russet, Pomme Gris, Albemarle Pippin, Hewes (Virginia) Crab and Wickson Crab. Braving the damp and cold, we managed to get our little trees into the ground before the weather got truly unpleasant.

We will be growing these trees using organic methods, not only to make sure we know what we are eating, but because we will want to ensure that our little pollinators remain healthy. In April, with the help of Ken W., we will be bringing in two hives of bees. To help both bees and apples, we will be seeding the new orchard with a combination of clover seed and a wildflower mix selected for bee forage characteristics. Achieving a healthy balance between the soil, trees and beneficial insects will be our project for 2010. At least, the one we choose. We have a way of ending up with projects we never anticipated.

We wish everyone a happy and prosperous New Year!

Smokehouse Apple, discovered in 1837, growing near a Pennsylvania smoke house. Photo from: All About Apples at: