Apples have carried mythological status for eons, from Adam and Eve to Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman, who wandered the frontier of our newly minted nation founding apple nurseries. And then there’s the quintessential apple experience: the crrruusp as teeth pierce crisp skin to unleash a burst of ambrosial juice. Unfortunately, none of these mythical moments bear resemblance to the apples we find in today’s supermarket.
Of the nearly 16,000 types of apples that have set down roots in our country, just 3,000 are now readily available (only a few hundred of which are edible). Of those, only 11 comprise 90% of all the apples sold in grocery stores; 41% are Red Delicious alone.
The decline in diversity is due to several interlacing factors. Land where wild apple trees once bore fruit now sports strip malls and subdivisions, and consolidation within the food industry means that most apples available to us are grown on large tracts of land bearing just a few varieties. Small nurseries, which carry a far more diverse selection than the garden centers at big box stores, have taken a hit too. The number of nurseries carrying a significant variety of apple trees declined by nearly 50% between 1989 and 2009.
Yet despite the dire numbers, we’re in the midst of an apple renaissance. The alliance for Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) dubbed 2010 the “Year of the Heirloom Apple” as part of its Forgotten Fruits initiative, with an eye to identifying and preserving disappearing apple varieties around the country.
While an “heritage apple” can mean any apple that’s been sold commercially since 1980, the term “heirloom apple” goes a bit deeper. These varieties have become part of our local lore and scenery, and seeds or cuttings are often passed from hand to hand. Heirlooms can also, though, be “rescued” from wild or abandoned trees, as Ezekiel Goodband, the orchard manager at Scott Farm in Vermont, has been doing for 30 years.
In the beginning, Goodband found that “all around, there were abandoned orchards that were growing up into scrub. I made deals with the owners that I’d prune and care for them in exchange for as much fruit as I could harvest and a few cuttings.” Then he would pore over old reference books trying to identify the types of apples he was finding. “There were Black Hawks and Roxbury Russets. It was a bit like keying out warblers with a Peterson Guide.” Once he began growing them, though, “it was a lot of trial and error. It seemed like there was quite a gap of knowledge.”
That knowledge gap, in fact, is one of the impediments to preserving heirloom apple varieties. RAFT and Slow Food worked to overcome the issue by mobilizing local Slow Food chapters to identify, document and grow varieties indigenous to their region. And has worked. From New York to Chicago to California, individuals and small groups are rescuing wild trees and overgrown orchards (and, in many cases, the stories that accompany them) and developing creative ways to grow them (adopt a tree, anyone?) and market them to the public, often through farmers’ markets and CSAs.
Goodband’s efforts have paid off too. The land that was once a conventional orchard growing only McIntosh now has over 70 varieties of apples. Goodband’s favorite part? Sharing the fruit of his labor. “People get to taste apples that Washington and Jefferson and Thoreau grew up eating. That’s the exciting part.”
The writer in me feels like this is where a tidy, descriptive list of common heirloom apple varieties would go. But I’m not going to do that. Since the point of preserving forgotten fruit is so much about taste of place, I’ll instead encourage you to seek out local growers and try varieties you may not have heard of or tasted before. Then start a conversation. Who knows … you may just end up meeting a modern day Johnny Appleseed.