The ‘All-American’ apple
One of the things my husband remembers with fondness from his childhood summers spent with his grandmother in Washington, D.C., were the apple “pigs” she made, crispy golden, deep-fried lumps of thinly-sliced early apples loosely connected with an egg-based batter. The apples came from a gnarled tree which grew in her small yard. I suspect it was a ‘Transparent,’ or perhaps one of a number of older varieties not seen much now. Another old variety no doubt was the source of the apples my Hoosier grandmother grew and used for her savory tart/sweet, world-famous (at least we thought it was) applesauce and apple butter.
Apple harvest is the season when all those good times and early apple treats that made for lasting memories of growing up once again warm us body and soul. Apples seem to be so much a part of our culture, and although we certainly have adopted and adapted this wonderful and versatile fruit, American as apple pie ‘taint necessarily so.
Of the few fruits that are native to the North American continent, apples aren’t one of them. Apples are native to Kazakhstan where “forests” of apple trees grow to this day. Apples are believed to have arrived on our shores — literally — sometime in the 1500s, possibly one of the earliest unrecorded cases of coastal littering with a significant outcome, compliments of Portuguese fishermen who frequented the area and no doubt tossed their apple cores.
Apple trees showed up first on the Maine islands. Eventually this fruit that would become so quintessentially American was found growing on the mainland. Indeed one of the first-known apple orchards on the North American continent was in Maine at — where else — Old Orchard Beach.
All these tidbits of apple-luscious information are from John Bunker, a modern-day combination of Johnny Appleseed, Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones all rolled up into one mild-mannered, bespectacled, enthusiastic heirloom apple sleuth and grower. Bunker spoke on all things apple recently at one of Merryspring Nature Center's summer lecture series. Bunker has been studying, researching, tracking down, digging up and growing Maine heirloom apples for what could be considered his life’s calling, having moved to Palermo right after graduation from college in the late ‘70s. As a Maine transplant, he was immediately interested in the history and practice of old Maine farms where everyone grew apples.
“Over time as I was learning about these (heirloom) apples, and I realized the (old) trees were dying,” Bunker explained. “It just sort of made sense that I since wanted to grow apples, that I should grow the ones that already grew around here. I also thought of these old trees as a gift. What was going to happen to these trees when they’re gone? There wasn’t a food movement then.”
That was in 1978 and Bunker found himself hiking the abandoned fields collecting seedlings, patching together old stories and investigating abandoned cellar holes for the heirloom trees that might yield graft wood, scions. Some of the graft wood Bunker obtained was cut from trees that were literally on their last legs.
“I was told they were worthless, and that was the reason no one grew them anymore,” Bunker added of those long-forgotten apples that were used a hundred or more years ago to make hard cider and vinegar. Some of those old apple varieties were best for storing all winter, while others were good for drying or for food for livestock, or making pies or applesauce for instance. “And as I ate them I found some were strange tasting. But I learned that back then not many apples were used for ‘desert apples’ (eating apples), but were used for other purposes. Today things are changing and people are beginning to realize those old apples are great.”
A century ago people grew nearly all the food that they ate and apples that dried well or kept all winter in the root cellar were often the only fruits available when the snow piled high and temperatures dipped low.
According to Bunker, between 1800 and 1850 some 20,000 varieties of apples were named in North America, with 200 to 300 different varieties grown just in Maine. Some of those varieties were so localized that they never went beyond a particular town or even valley, he explained. Tracking down apple varieties proved to be a site-specific task. Indeed Bunker has poured over old records and books, traveled far and wide in his search, even posted “apple wanted” posters to uncover choice varieties. One of those enigmas took two decades to solve and involved a special apple grown only in Lincolnville, the ‘Fletcher Sweet.’ Fortunately not everyone has forgotten about those old apples, but like the heirloom trees on their last gasps, many of those old timers are on their way out too. More than one of those seniors, like the late Clarence Thurlow, have been the key to solving apple mysteries in Bunker’s quest.
Bunker explained that “every apple seed is unique.” Because apples are not self-pollinating, meaning they require a different variety for pollination, the seeds aren’t “true” to the parent tree. Plant the seed of a Macintosh apple and Lord only knows what you’ll get. Back in the day, as those ancient apples seeded in and grew, folks discovered some of them (a lot actually) were good for various uses, such as making cider for example. But the only way to get another apple tree that made similar cider was to clone it, or in the vernacular of the time — graft it. Take a cutting or scion, and graft it onto a seedling and you end up with a clone of the parent tree.
According to Bunker somewhere in history on a continent far from here, someone discovered that technique and from then on, apples were off and running making their way throughout China (probably along the famed Silk Road) and to Europe and eventually right here to our shores. It’s a fascinating history and one to contemplate the next time you sink your teeth into an apple or raise a forkful of aromatic apple pie to your lips.
And, thanks to John Bunker and those who work alongside him, we have a lot more choices today. Valuable in their own right because of their heritage, those old trees may soon once again become popular with the local food movements and incentive for folks to produce more of what they eat.
“This is our heritage,” Bunker said. “These (trees) are as important, as a beautiful old building. They are a living part of our heritage.” Few of Bunker’s heirloom apples would win beauty contests, with their odd shapes and peculiar markings. But as in many things and especially when it comes to apples, beauty isn’t skin deep because many of those odd-ball apples can outshine today’s glamour-girl apples when it comes to specific functions.
Bunker works with Fedco Trees (your source for heirloom apple trees) which he organized in 1984. His work with heirloom apples in the state of Maine and the apple CSA on his Super Chilly Farm in Palermo, were recently recognized in a feature article in the October issue of “Martha Stewart Living” magazine. If you would like to learn more about Bunker’s pomology work and apples in Maine, The Great Maine Apple Day is Oct. 21 from noon to 4 p.m. at the Common Ground Education Center, 294 Crosby Brook Road, Unity, sponsored by MOFGA, Fedco, and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
Celebrate the history, flavor and tradition of Maine apples at educational workshops and talks. Learn about apple art, cider making, organic tree care, see and taste rare and heirloom apples or bring your own varieties to show and taste and apple identifiers will help you identify your “mystery variety.”
Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the Garden Writers Association’s Silver Award of Achievement for 2012. She is a member of the Garden Writers Association, and she gardens in Camden. Got questions, or comments? Visit her blog, and join in the conversation at: gardeningonthego.wordpress.com or “friend her” on Facebook.