The trees have bloomed

and the little green apples are starting to grow. When we lived in a house in the middle of an apple orchard apple blossom time was magical, with white flowers drifting on every breeze like wishes.

We had no worries. An orchard is eternally optimistic. It goes through its cycle of bloom, bud, ripen, drop, predictably every year as long as it is minimally tended. Fall was applesauce time, a little hard work, but we’d had time to rest under the trees all summer and tend the vegetable garden, rich with chicken manure.

Much later, when we lived in the cabin, we found an apple press run by a former ad man who made it a point to sell heritage apples, offering them in crates with signs indicating their provenance. “Black Twig, originated in 1825 in Pennsylvania” – that’s just one example. You could pick a dozen or two varied apples from these crates or drink Geoff’s cider. Each batch was different, and he posted the types of apples that he pulped on a chalkboard. Most delicious cider ever.

We found in an obscure library with a  perennial hole in the roof – in Mount Vernon, NY – a book called The Apples of New York, from 1905, authored by S.A. Beach, a “Report of the New York Agricultural Experiment Station for the year 1903.”

Its two volumes annotated the thousands of species of apples that could be found in the state at that time, with full color plates. Everyone knows that apples and cider are part of American history – people drank cider when they feared the water supply was tainted – but who knew there were so many different kinds? It’s a gorgeous book. If you want it for your home library you’ll have to pay around 500 bucks for it.

A man named Tom Brown has made it his life’s mission to collect heirloom apples, making sure no more get lost. The retired chemical engineer llives in North Carolina, but travels throughout Appalachia going door-to-door hounding octogenarians for their memories of trees they knew when they were young, hunting for old orchards, or sometimes the remains of old orchards nearly forgotten in someone’s back forty. He has so far reclaimed 1,200 varieties, and keeps 700 of the rarest in his own Heritage Apples orchard.

Names of some of the old order include Etter’s Gold, Arkansas Black, White Winter Jon, Royal Lemon, Candy Stripe. The flesh and skin are a wild array of colors and textures and flavors. One researcher found that commercial growers in the U.S. had around 14,000 unique apple varities in the 19thcentury.

I’ve always wondered what the truth was about Johnny Appleseed, aka John Chapman, whom I always imagined wildly scattering handfuls of apple seeds as he traipsed across the country. There is some reality there. He was a pioneer nurseryman who traveled to parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and West Virginia. He was a legend in his own time.

There is a story I like of John picking seeds from the pomace of Potamac cider mills in the 1790s. His first nursery was on the bank of the Brokenstraw Creek in Pennsylvania, and then he planted nurseries wherever he traveled. He also preached the gospel as he went. Some say he had a pet wolf that followed him constantly. Sure. And he wore a tin pot on his head. What? What is probably true, on the other hand, is that he was against the practice of grafting, and so the apples his trees produced were wild and usable only for cider.

Americans were mostly drunks then, including children.

Dan Pucci and Craig Cavallo just came out with a book about cider that Alice Waters really likes.

Now we have Honeycrisp, developed in a laboratory, and Gala, whose flavor is mainly sugar. Eleven boring varieties account for 90 percent of  grocery sales. If you have a wizened old apple tree on your property, consider yourself blessed. Don’t worry about the spots. The spots give them gravitas.

1 Comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

One response to “The trees have bloomed

  1. Andy Hillman

    Thanks Lady Jean! I appreciate the old Northern spy in the side yard. It’s the only tree remaining from an ancient orchard.

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