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Wild Apples Evolving With Us

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, November 08, 2013

Thousands of 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 springtime bee.”

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.

Pollan and 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 plants through Fedco Trees, a 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.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  nature  resilience 

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