Ahhh, so this is the birth week of Mr. Johnathan Chapman, better known in American Folklore as Johnny Appleseed.
I've spent many articles worth of space here and over at Homegrown Goodness talking about the wonderful exploits of Mr. Luther Burbank, but only recently have I come to see the intelligence of John Chapman. Yes, Johnny Appleseed was a real man and if you want to read about him and his real life exploits then check out his wikipedia and this article.
Anyhow, one of the many project we are working on here at Bishop's Homegrown is our orchard. I've spent many years thinking about it and all of the last year planning it and this year actually planting and preparing it. I have thus far been very diligent in learning as much about the orchard trade as I can. I have learned a number of grafting methods including whip and tongue, cleft grafting, t-budding, and chip budding over the preceding months of 2009. I have grafted pears and apples and have had some great success for having been a self taught first timer. I have thus far shied myself away from my instincts for selection and breeding due to discouragement by mainstream type orchardist, who I have come to realize, I bear no resemblance to in terms of "wants vs. needs". After reading through a number of sources of information and daydreaming about the exploits of Luther Burbank I got really curious about apple seedlings, that is, ungrafted apples grown from seeds or as they are more professionally called "pips", this lead me down the long, strange, and windy road of Mr. John Chapman.
I have read many times that a century ago there were upwards of 10,000 varieties of apples in existence, whereas now with apples grown for commercial purposes and grafted for the home garden that perhaps there are 300 varieties. And just why is that exactly?
I came to a conclusion, people are scared of the unknown, don't like to explore "new territory" anymore and perhaps lowest on the list don't have space to grow apples from seed which will reach "full sized tree" status as opposed to the diminutive grafted trees on dwarfing stock. To me this was a sad realization, no longer we have no diversity left, people are so used to the supermarket red delicious and granny smith that they have overlooked and forgotten those varieties that made orchards so special a hundred or more years ago.
Perhaps first we should look at how the apple and it's uses in our society have changed over the years. You see, back in Mr. Chapmans' day the apple was most commonly used as a "cider" apple, in the sense of "hard cider", so named and grafted varieties weren't necessarily of great importance on the frontier of the west or even within the colonies (as is evidenced by reading through Thomas Jefferson's garden journals), instead of apples having been selected for table quality, they instead were selected for cider qualities or generally blended together in a mix, those that were horrid were not wasted and became a valuable source of hog feed. Let us also not forget that Mr. Chapman had a religious aversion to apple grafting and that his innovative style of planting "seed nurseries" allowed him to accomplish two feats in one, by planting naturally hybridized seed (all apples are by nature hybrids) he had the opportunity to select and search out new and terrific varieties for keeping the settlers fed, but also the more important task (at that time)of providing the average "cider" apple trees so sought after by local settlers and apple presses. Fast forward a bit later and the apple market and subsequently orchards were forced to undergo massive changes due to industry turmoil. It seems the seeping in of prohibition in American moral culture forced the industry to pull a quick switch to more table/palette friendly apples, quickly the focus and PR of apples was changed from one of "drink of choice" to that of health icon and "dessert of choice".
Anyhow, since by their very nature all apples are considered cider apples, Johnny was doing a big favor to settlers moving west in planting a bag of mixed genetic seedlings in his nurseries for later sale to the homesteaders who would use them in home use, as barter, or sell them to cider presses (the very same source of those apple pits that Mr. Chapman was planting). Just how many new varieties out of those now "lost" varieties was Mr. Chapman indeed responsible for? We may never know. What is really sad is there are very few, and I have done my research and I mean very few people working on new apple varieties.....but I'll get to that in a moment.
First let me focus on that pesky little fact that apples don't come true from seed for those interested in that line of thought. Three words come to mind. NOT ENTIRELY TRUE. There are indeed "self fertile" or "preponderant" varieties such as Wolf River (cider, pie, apple butter) and the Russian "Antanovka" (fresh eating) as well as Cox's Orange Pippen, that will come quite true from seed.....most of the time. I tracked down nine of them, seeds and all which have made their way into our new nursery project both as plants for sale next season and as trees for our own orchard.
Anyhow, I have been working hard at starting our nursery project over the past several weeks, tracking down seeds and starts of many fruits, nuts, and trees. White Blackberries, white, red, black, and pink currants, gooseberries, hardy figs, blueberries, hardy kiwi, hazelnut, black walnut, pecans, peaches, pears, persimmons, English Walnuts, Josta berries, raspberries of all colors and apples....apples....apples. At the same time I've been working on getting my nursery license for local use for next season and cutting wood out of the old lane on the boarder of our woodlot in one of the few flat and navigable roads on our property.
All of this work has lead to many interesting trains of thought. One of which involved cleaning out the wooded lane (the wood was mostly of walnut and black cherry which was of no commercial value given the weird shapes and poor growth it exhibited and was instead to be used for firewood) and eventually replanting the lane in high value timber which can also be used as orchard crops. Black Walnut, Persimmon, Shagbark Hickory and so on. I theorize that in time this will afford Kim and I a trip to some far off shore we would like to visit and would make harvesting the wood much easier given the flat and wide lane it will be planted in.
Ok.....back to apples. I must express that while I am starting many crops from seeds, they tend to be varieties that come true from seed, or relatively true, preponderant as Luther Burbank called it. Cherries are no big deal, peaches come relatively true, but I kept throwing out apples and pears as an experiment until I started reading about Johnny Appleseed and his adventure which inspired my creativity to kick into overtime, it just so happens I started researching him a couple weeks before his birthday (conveniently. He is also buried in Indiana and worked in many places in our beautiful state), it was also convenient to know he sourced his seed from cider presses.....light bulbs start going off and I start thinking really hard about some new theories. Just so happens this past week we had a big celebration called "Old Settlers Days" up the road in Salem Indiana, held at the John Hay museum, the festival is based in the small pioneer village on the property and is an experience and great time everyone in the county and everyone who visits should experience. It just so happens that every year the Rotary club comes and presses fresh apples into cider on the site and that I happen to know a couple members.....ding, ding, ding! We have a winner!
Quickly I make phone calls and tell Kim about my asinine idea for experimenting with apple seedlings that will not fruit and make their value known for ten years.
Needless to say, Sunday I sifted through five full trash bags of pippins, running them through my worm harvester to separate the seeds from the leftover apple and then floating off what still passed through the screen. The end result? Nearly five ounces of seed, and what am I going to do with that seed? Plant it of course!
I figure it like this, every empty hole in the Forrest where I take a tree for wood or the wind or ice downs one for our use can be replanted with apples. The field that lies fallow due to overuse alongside the boundaries of our open fields can be planted to close to 100 of these trees and the remainder will find themselves useful as rootstock or even as "cider apple" seedlings for sale in our nursery. In time I will know if any of them are useful, if not, I'll cut them down or graft them, no big deal, besides it's not as though I don't have 35 grafted and known variety trees as a backup, and you never know, the best new apple this century could come from one of these trees, weather here on our property or by way of a customer who busy a Bishop's Homegrown/Hip-Gnosis Seed Produced "cider apple" from our nursery.
Either way it is a project I am devoted to, I think more people should find the time and space to plant pips if at all possible and explore apples. If we ever want to build up apple diversity to where it once was it will take people in the spirit of John Chapman to accomplish such feats of diversity!