An Apple Proposition
“Pick your way through these piles of colorful orbs… and you will get a sense of the many things an apple can be, the many roles it can play in our lives. If there is one particular lesson the apple has to teach us, it is that the world is ripe with possibilities.”
— Rowan Jacobsen, Apples of Uncommon Character
Hundreds of varieties of apples once grew in Maine, with names as colorful as their varied hues: Canadian Strawberry, Nutting Bumpus and Winekist. Apple trees were commonplace on most Maine homesteads, providing fresh fruit for at least half the year, as well as abundant cider, sauce and vinegar.
Over time, Maine lost its apple culture, but now that’s changing, and each of us can play a part in its revival.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to plant an heirloom apple tree. More than one would be better still.
When I planted the first of our apple trees more than a decade ago, I had no clue about Maine’s remarkable apple heritage. I didn’t know that the Starkey apple tree I’d chosen had originated just 50 miles from where I was placing its slender descendant into the ground.
Nor could I imagine the explosion of flavor that awaited me when we harvested our first Ashmead’s Kernel apple. Its homely exterior belies an exquisite taste. “Surely no apple of greater distinction or more perfect balance can ever have been raised anywhere on earth,” observed British pomologist and food writer P. Morton Shand. Imagine having that superlative fruit in your yard!
By planting heirloom apples, we honor and extend a land heritage tracing back centuries. New England was home to some of the earliest named apple varieties, including the very first, Roxbury Russet, discovered in 1635.
Varieties widely propagated during the 1700s and 1800s slowly lost their foothold as farms reverted to forest, people grew less of their own food and weather events took a toll. A single severe winter in 1933-34 killed off more than 300,000 Baldwin apple trees in Maine.
As apples became more of a commodity crop, orchardists were encouraged to replace traditional varieties with ones commonplace today, like the Macintosh. A Massachusetts man charged with overseeing the cutting of old apple trees as part of a Works Progress Administration project, Stearns Davenport, realized the risk of losing the region’s agricultural legacy and began collecting representative varieties in his own orchard during the 1930s.
For more than three decades, John Bunker has been at the forefront of Maine’s heritage apple preservation. “It’s about history,” he says, “but it’s very much about the future.”
To help people appreciate the state’s historical apple varieties, Bunker founded Fedco Trees and spearheaded creation of the Maine Heritage Orchard, which will soon have more than 400 varieties.
Since apple trees do not come true from seed, propagating a particular variety depends on grafting cuttings from existing trees onto rootstock. Most heirloom varieties go onto standard Antonovka rootstock that can produce a long-lived tree (some in Maine date back 200 years). Dwarf varieties common in commercial orchards produce more quickly and take little space but are weaker and shorter-lived.
Heirloom trees grown on standard rootstock can take up to a decade to bear fruit, but delectable apples are not their only harvest. Part of the mission in planting them is to keep these beautiful trees and the pollinators they help support as part of our collective landscape. Planting and caring for these trees offers us a chance to provide joy and nourishment to people we will never know.
The hardest part of fulfilling your tree-planting mission may also be the most tantalizing: reading through pages of mouth-watering descriptions to select your choice. I set out to choose three varieties but can’t seem to pare my list down from nine that captured my imagination.
Once you have your tree in the ground (for Portland residents, the city can help through its Co-op Tree Planting Program), little ongoing maintenance is required. “You just have to be attentive and patient,” says orchardist and Source award winner Waite Maclin.
Maclin reassures novices that his initial attempt at pruning an apple tree was reminiscent of a “first kiss – wondering ‘am I going to ruin it?’ ” The tree flourished and so did the 80-plus others he has planted, wherever in his ledgy land he can find three feet of topsoil.
Apple trees are remarkably resilient, Maclin adds: “They survive us really well.”
Plant a tree
- Fedco Trees, fedcoseeds.com/trees, offers many heirloom apple trees, selling roughly 3,000 a year to Maine residents. Its catalog offers detailed guidance on planting and tree care. If you contribute $50 to the Maine Heritage Orchard (through Fedco or mofga.org), you’ll receive a tree that is one of the orchard varieties.
- For help deciding what to plant, attend the Common Ground Country Fair (Friday to Sept. 25) or Great Maine Apple Day (Oct. 16), sample apples at a local orchard (many have a few heirloom varieties), and peruse the following books:
- Apples of Uncommon Character, by Rowan Jacobsen
- Apples of New England, by Russell Steven Powell
- Apples of North America, by Tom Burford
- The University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and Cultivating Community offer workshops on pruning or grafting.
- No space for a tree? Consider volunteering at the Maine Heritage Orchard (email firstname.lastname@example.org) or one of Portland’s community orchards (contact Cultivating Community through the website cultivatingcommunity.org, or look for Friends of Forest City Trees on Facebook).
© Marina Schauffler, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.