varieties of apples flourished in America in centuries past. Apples were
something people drank, and the extraordinary varieties of red, green, yellow and
purplish fruits, many of them sour, bitter, and unappetizing by themselves, made
excellent hard cider and hog feed.
Rowan Jacobsen, in his Mother Jones story "Why Your Supermarket Only Sells 5 Kinds of Apples," writes about the biological evolution of the American apple and the political
and social forces that shaped it. He
also tells the story of John Bunker, known in Maine as The
Apple Guy, whose decades-long mission has been to identify and preserve as many
varieties as possible.
One of the
interesting things about apples is that if a tree is
grown from seed, its apples won’t be anything like apples of its parent
tree. Individual seeds in each apple contain genetic instructions for a totally new apple. As Jacobson
explains, "An apple fruit is a disposable womb of the mother tree, each
containing a unique combination of genes from the mother tree, and the mystery
dad, whose contribution arrived in a pollen packet inadvertently carried by a
The Plant Genetic Resource Unit, in
Geneva, New York now maintains 2,500 varieties of apple trees collected from all over the world. While the ancient fruit originated in the mountains of Kazakhstan, Michael Pollan suggests in his book the Botany of Desire, a Plant’s Eye View of the World,
that the apple as it dispersed became quintessentially American. It was hardy,
grew anywhere, could thrive with no maintenance, and was almost mystically democratic.
In the early 1800s when Johnny Appleseed was planting his
trees, Pollan writes, "they were a
blooming fruiting meritocracy in which every apple seed roots in the same soil
and has an equal chance of greatness.”
Further, Pollan says, hard cider was the buzz of choice in
early America, because while the
Bible warned against the dangers of the grape, apples even when fermented were
considered more innocent. But that
view, too, evolved.
Jacobsen write that many apple varieties disappeared during Prohibition when trees bearing the
best cider apples were chopped down.
More diversity was lost with the increasing industrialization of
agriculture. To consistently
produce sweet, tasty, bright colored apples, farmers had to take a cutting from
a tree that produced fruit with the desired trait, and graft it onto living stock. Every McIntosh, Red Delicious and Granny Smith comes
from grafting. As industrialization of agriculture
increased, so did focus on a few commercially appealing varieties that would
withstand long shipment.
The loss of
biodiversity puts plants at risk for pests and disease, and today’s apples are
vulnerable to both. Apples require more pesticides than any other crop,
and are hard to grow organically. Bunker studies apples growing in towns, forests and on neighbors’ lands, and tries to save rare apples, some of which have blight resistant
genetic traits. He estimates he
has rescued 80 to 100 varieties, growing grafted trees at his Fedco Nursery, and selling vintage
mail order company he founded 30 year ago. Bunker fears our
diverse agricultural heritage is in danger not only because of the dwindling number of varieties being
commercially grown, but
because many new apples like the Sweet Tango
are the intellectual property of
those who bred them.
He keeps looking for lost specimens he’s
heard about from distant visitors and
local lore, or read about in old books and farm catalogs. His search for the Fletcher Sweet led him to an
elderly resident in the town of
Lincolnville who knew of a gnarled ancient tree that grew apples he ate as a
child. Bunker cut shoots from what little life was left in the tree, and his
new grafted trees produced a juicy
green flavorful apple. So he has
given some young Fletcher Sweet trees back to Lincolnville. Read the Mother Jones story here.