Everywhere I look, there are jewels in the trees.
Apple season. The air is sugared with the sweet scent of fruit warmed by the September sun.
Driving down country lanes, my eye is drawn almost constantly to the bright red orbs of apple trees. They grow wildly and randomly; in the middle of an empty field in the deep dusk of a late summer twilight. Up on the hillside, clinging close to the walls of earth. Remnants of forgotten orchards clustered in copses of alder and hemlock trees.
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I see plenty of well-maintained apple trees, too, in the yards and orchards around town. Groomed and trimmed and domesticated so that they yield up their apples easily and tidily.
But I like those wild old forgotten ones the best.
Apples are really intriguing, when you get right down to it. The mythology of apples. The history of apples. The science of apples. Most people never think about this fruit beyond choosing one or two from the few sub-par specimens found in the grocery store bins, which invariably look much better than they taste. But apples are really downright, truly amazing.
Inside of every seed of every apple that ever grew on every apple tree that has ever existed, lies the potential for a unique, singular and unprecedented fruit. No apple tree sprouted from a seed is the same as any other.
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Apples, like humans, are genetically heterozygous, only extremely so. This means that alleles, or variations, of their genes can be radically different from each other. These variations in turn can affect everything from the taste of it’s flesh and the color of it’s skin, to it’s susceptibility to a particular pest or disease. The only thing you can be sure of when sprouting an apple tree from seed is that it will be nothing like it’s parents or it’s siblings. It will be it’s own individual self.
Currently, there are 7,500 known varieties of eating apples currently in the world. Only a handful of those (really only a dozen or so!) are sold in grocery stores and, thanks to the economics of industrialization, apples are becoming a monoculture. The only way to grow a new apple tree true to it’s variety is to clone it and graft it, and commercial apple growers focus on just 100 popular types.
What’s more, many of those apples are now “intellectual property,” which basically means that they’ve been copyrighted. You and I aren’t allowed to grow them, now or ever. Those varieties will forever remain in the hands of big agribusiness in order to make profits.
Thousands of different and unique kinds of apples have been lost, and thousands more will be. By focusing on those popular few dozen varieties to the exclusion of all else, humankind will miss out on the incredible and diverse array of apples that could exist, and most that already do.
Heirloom Apple Trees
There are so many trees on and around the farmstead, the oldest planted near on a century ago, that have no name that I know of.
We have two Winter Banana apples and, maybe, a Kingston Black tree in our orchard. I say maybe to the Kingston Black because in all the many years that I’ve picked apples on this farm I have never seen it fruit. So, who really knows for sure?
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That leaves three old, gnarled, treasured and nameless apple trees on our property. One of those trees probably sprouted from a seed, dropped by a bird or other creature, on the wooded western hillside. It pokes out from underneath a fringe of 75-foot-tall cedar and hemlock trees. It’s fruit is pinkish red, sweet, and usually stays on the tree until December.
The other two apple trees, planted near the turn of the century, grow along the side of the original farmhouse. Both are crooked and knotted and burled, and at over 15 feet tall they were doubtless planted before the invention of dwarf root-stock.
The one in the garden is sadly near the end of it’s natural life. It’s mostly hollow on the inside, and only half of the tree has leaves and fruit. Starlings nest in the other half. We’re going to prune the original tree and get rid of the dead half, but even then I’m not sure how long the tree will last. We’ve started talking about grafting a piece of it onto a new and healthy root-stock, just to make sure we keep it’s apples going. They’re the first to ripen every year, and make wonderful sauce and cider.
The other tree is our favorite eating apple of all time.
Many years ago this particular tree fell over in a storm. Someone righted it and propped it up with a cinch and a chain and a stout piece of board. The board is still there, and the tree still leans into it; no longer a perfect specimen, but still faithfully producing the most delicious apples as it has for a century or more.
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I wish I knew the name of this tree. It’s fruit is big and striped red and green and yellow. The flesh is creamy with a blush of pink along the edges, and spreading to the core as it ripens. The smell of this apple is maybe the most striking part of all. It smells sweet and spicy, like candied fruit. Until I find out otherwise, I might name it the Red Redolent. Maybe I’ll graft it and sell it. It is, in my opinion, the very best apple in the world.
The Honeycrisp and the Fuji and the SweeTango® (whatever the hell that is) can’t hold candles — or complexity of scent and flavor — to my Red Redolent heirloom apple.
An Ode (not an Elegy, yet)
This is a season of delight. It is a season of heirloom apple trees, of ambrosial citrines and rubies glinting like fire from the wild tangle of forest around us.
The forgotten boundary trees of old homesteads, the determined wild seedlings in the brush, and even those manicured and domesticated trees in suburban backyards, all of them seem to stir a tempest of magic and mystery, possibility and antiquity. The apple trees are timeless. They are past, and present, and future. They are agriculture gone wrong, and they are hope and abundance itself.
Plant a seed, spin the wheel, see what the earth gives you.
Like the pioneers who planted them, like the people who love them, like their own unique genetic makeup, those old trees are in a class all their own.
Wild and wonderful to their very core.