The Opinionated Gardener: Apples, wild and civilized

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Henry David Thoreau didn’t have much use for what he called the “more civilized (cultivated) apple.” Writing in his journal in the mid 19th century, he described its taste as “tame and forgettable.” For Thoreau, nothing beat the “tang and smack” of the wild apples he sampled during his walks in the late days of fall.

For it was only then that the wild apple “planted by cow and bird” and “seasoned by wind, frost and rain” came into its own. It was only then, when “eaten in the fields when your system is all aglow with exercise, when the frosty weather nips your fingers,” that one could appreciate the taste of the wild apple.

Thoreau’s so-called “civilized” apples were the grafted apples growing in cultivated orchards. They were the apples that had been, for commercial reasons, selected not necessarily for their “spirited flavor,” as for their “tame taste,” their size, their appearance, their hardiness and their keeping qualities. “Indeed I have no faith in the selected lists of pomological gentlemen,” wrote Thoreau.

Chance seedlings and unknown parentage

Tangy taste aside, it should be known, had Thoreau saved the seed of one of his wild apples, planted it and waited some 20 years – the time it takes to grow an apple from seed – he would probably have been wildly disappointed. The offspring would have borne little resemblance to his wild apple. In fact, if he had planted two seeds from that apple, the result would have been two distinctly different apple trees.

For, alas, apple seeds are notorious for not bearing true. It’s not that their flowers aren’t “perfect” or that they they don’t have both sex organs – it’s just that most varieties reject their own pollen-bearing sperm and that most only bear fruit when receiving the pollen of another variety of apple.

While this doesn’t keep the apple tree from bearing true fruit (albeit in appearance only), the seeds – the actual offspring of the cross – bear fruit that is distinctly different from its parents. The botanical term for this is “heterozygosity.” It’s how new varieties “spring” up; it’s how apples are able to adapt to many different environments; it’s how Thoreau’s wild apples with their most likely “unknown parentage” originated.

Had Thoreau taken a “cutting” or “scion” (si-on) from a fruit-bearing branch of his favorite wild apple tree and grafted it onto the root stock of another apple tree, or asexually reproduced his apple (i.e., cloned it), he could have created a plentiful, steady, and reliable source of his favorite wild apple. But that wasn’t his way; one suspects Thoreau favored single chance autumnal encounters in the wild.

Cross breeding and known parentage

Selection of chance seedlings with their “unknown” parentage is one way new and desirable varieties come about. Cross pollination breeding is another. That’s how the popular Cortland apple, a cross between Ben Davis and McIntosh, came into being. The cross was made at the New York Experimental Station in Geneva in 1898; it was selected in 1911 from 11 seedlings and was released in 1915.

While pomologists are pretty sure that the McIntosh originated as a chance seedling in Ontario, Canada, and was discovered by a John McIntosh in 1796, they’re not quite sure about the origins of Ben Davis. Some say it originated as a chance seedling in the south. But Fedco Tree’s John Bunker isn’t so sure, given that Ben Davis does so well in northern climes.

In Bunker’s must read, must own, just published Not Far From the Tree: A Brief History of the Apples and The Orchards of Palermo, Maine 1804-2004, he cites a recently discovered short unsigned essay – Minot in History – that notes “The Davis family (living on the Death Valley Road in Minot in the early 1800s) developed the Ben Davis apple and the popular demand for this variety for shipping to Liverpool, England, made a flourishing business for farmers, who set the scions to trees to insure a large crop…”

If that is to be believed, says Bunker, the Ben Davis would certainly be the most famous apple to have originated in Maine.

Wanted Alive and Found: The Deane Apple

The Deane, a.k.a. Nine Ounce apple, is an example of a chance seedling that originated in Temple, Maine and was popular throughout Maine in the early 20th century. It was all but lost, but not forgotten, in the late 20th century and is now making a comeback, thanks to Fedco Trees in Waterville, and the growing interest in “antique” or heritage apples.

George Stilphen, in his book The Apples of Maine, reports that Deane originated on the farm of a Cyrus Deane* of Temple and was first exhibited at the Franklin County Fair in 1859. It was said to be delicious, tree hardy and a great bearer; it was also said, in its day, to be of considerable importance as an apple for the local market.

While Deane was all but lost in Temple (over the years, after reading the reference to Deane in Stilphen’s book, The Opinionated Gardener made several unsuccessful attempts to find it during her walks in the woods near Deane Mountain), little did The Opinionated Gardener know it was alive and well, albeit well into its old age, a few miles away on Tory Hill in Phillips, in the once-abandoned orchard of a farm purchased by Michael Rothchild in the late ‘60s.

Four trees in the orchard, believed to be more than 60 years old, previously believed by the Rothchild’s to be Maiden’s Blush, were recently identified by Fedco Tree’s Bunker to be without question Deane apples (pictured at right). And, thanks to scionwood from the Rothchild’s trees, Fedco Trees, through its growers cooperative, is now offering the grafted, “two-part trees,” for around $20 a piece.

The OG has tasted Deane and confirms everything that Fedco Trees describes as: “Fine-grained white tender juicy sprightly subacid (tart) fruit. Melting with the consistency of a Mac but no scabs.”

Tart? One suspects that Thoreau would have approved of this apple that has once again been brought in from the wild.

*Richard Pierce, the author of “A History of Temple: It’s Rise and Decline,” informs us that the Cyrus Deane family was particularly active in the work of the Underground Railroad in the years just preceding the Civil War: “..a descendent (Flora Deane Weeks) recalls vague traditions of negroes arriving under cover of darkness from the southern part of the state the following night being on their way to the Canadian border.”

Still Lost & Wanted Alive

For the past several years, Fedco Trees has put out a call for other lost but not forgotten Maine apples. In addition to Deane, which has now been found, there are still two other Franklin County apples on Fedco’s “wanted” list:

Boardman. A seedling of Deane, originated on the farm of E.H. Purington in West Farmington before 1886. Small to medium. Skin glossy bright red, mixed and splash with carmine. Gray dots not very numerous but prominent. Flesh very white, tender, fine-grained, juicy. Sub-acid (tart). Season from December to spring.

Russell. Originated on the farm formerly owned by Captain Russell, one of the early settlers of Farmington in the 18th century. Fruit large, roundish ovate; bright yellow, washed and obscurely striped with red on the sunny side; surface waxy; flesh yellow, fine grained, juicy, crisp, mild sub-acid. Best September.

If you know the whereabouts of these apples, please contact FEDCO or call 873-7333.

Editor’s note: This column was first published in the December 2007 Daily Bulldog.

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