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Mountain Home Magazine

The Old Family Tree

You know you have seen one while out and about. Twisted and wizened, these old trees personify the memories of days gone by. Speckled with brown splotches that mar their yellow skins, you might think twice about eating one of them. But rest assured, these forgotten remnants of our forefather’s best apple pie are just as sumptuous as the grafted kind.

These grannies of old have names—but not ones we’d recognize today. If you are so fortunate as to have either a copy of the coveted 1905 publication by the United States Department of Agriculture Nomenclature of the Apple: A Catalog of the Known Varieties Referred to in American Publications from 1804 to 1904, or the two-volume series published in 1905 by the New York Experimental Station entitled Apples of New York, containing color plates galore, you might recognize the fruit from that misshapen old maid.

They named apple varieties back then by the name of the man who grew them. (This seems rather odd to me, since it was women who made them into a dish most delicious, wasn’t it?)

Aaron, Abbott, Aberdeen, Abernathy, Abraham, and Ackerman are just a few of the apple cultivars that were available 110 years ago. Most befittingly, and foresightedly, the 350 pages of names in the USDA bulletin ends with an apple variety called Young America. All told, this particular publication mentions over 14,000 apple variety names. Including derivative spellings of the same name, it’s entirely possible one of your ancestor’s grew one. If you’ve ever wondered how your last name was really spelled, this just might be the genealogy record you’ve been missing!

If you could be so lucky, you might even know of an apple tree of more antiquity.

When we arrived here, oh, say about 500 years ago, there were already three distinct apple varieties considered indigenous to this country. They are a type of Rosacea in the order Pomea in the genus Pyrus, otherwise known as crab apples, and they are fragrant little trees. But the fruit: wow, is it sour! You’ll pucker your lips for sure! Just one inch around, these late-maturing little bites of fiber make great fruit preserve. Because of their natural pectin these apple jams set up just fine. (Pectin is a natural fiber found in fruits like apples with the highest concentrations in the skins, cores, and seeds—to make your own liquid pectin, boil up some tart green apples with a little bit of lemon juice, reducing it as you go, and you won’t have to go buy it at the grocery store.)

When our forefathers arrived, it did not take them long to hybridize their favorite European apple with these native trees, and out of those pollinator-induced matings came the first cultivated cider-making hybrids known as Soulard, Howard, Mercer, and Kentucky Mammoth. You might recognize their descendants as the apples that don’t ripen until winter. Not many of us make cider anymore, but if you do, look for these ‘after the frost’ hangers-on to make your own particular concoction of fermented hard cider next time.

The modern apple we have today, Pyrus malus, is actually a cross between a Malus domestica apple and the Siberian crab Pyrus baccata. No one really knows when this cross occurred when it came to America. Its native range since prehistoric times is the Caucasus Mountains of Eurasia. There are also other old world apple varieties in the Malus genus, thirty or so, to be exact. Just order some rootstock and plant an orchard of these and you will be amazed at the differences within this genus of fruit trees.

It’s highly possible that your apple orchard, or the remnants of that gnarled old tree, date back to the early 1700s when settlers planted apple seeds everywhere they went, as did the Indians, who valued their sweet scent.

It’s even harder to believe that something could remain alive for that long, but another Pyrus species known as the Endicott Pear in Danvers, Massachusetts, is still alive after 380-plus years. It was planted back around 1633. When vandals cut off its branches and left nothing but an amputated stump, it grew back again, bearing identical fruit. So it’s quite possible that your old grove of twisted, knotty, Pyrus malus scrubs are truly Colonial in origin.

Keep in mind though, our modern apple cultivars are not carbon copies of their parents like the Endicott Pear. In fact, plant a handful of apple seeds and none might look the same, perhaps because of their dependency on pollination by flying things moving from one pistillate flower to another, mixing different anther pollen—tree by tree by tree.

But, whatever the cause, their extreme heterozygosity in reproduction is why we have so many different apple varieties today.

If you are game to tackle an investment orchard of enormous magnitude you’ll need forty acres or more for all 7,500 different apple cultivars available today. Just imagine the money you could make selling the option to name the new cultivars to all of your friends out in cyberspace as their own personal identifier!

Since every apple seed is more unique than our septuagenarian social security system could ever hope to be, this might be the ultimate fraud prevention plan!

Hmm. I might just try this myself.

Link your name to a seed and lock it away in a Bravo Seed Vault for all eternity! Clone it as needed when your identity is in doubt (like the next time you go to register to vote a politician out). Just remember the math: it takes 3 medium apples to make a 9-inch pie and about 126 will make a bushel weight of 46. At 12 to 25 cents per apple that seems a fair trade (the interest will accrue beginning immediately!). Just think, your family could have lived off the interest alone if your ancestor had planted his very own apple tree. And then sold personalized seed-stock- options from each and every crate, instead of investing in the tulip bulb debacle of 1638! (Really, that did happen.)

It’s sound advice, I tell ya! Click here to invest in your very own apple tree today!! 

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