“The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to its culture,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1821. When Europeans first came to the new world, there were no cultivated fruit trees, and no apples of any kind. For the next 300 years, Americans worked to fix that. Colonists brought over seedlings and cuttings, planting apple, peach and other orchards to grow fruit for alcoholic beverages, livestock feed, and for eating. The varieties brought from Europe were modified to suit the varying climates and uses of different areas of the country, so that by 1905 W. H. Ragan’s USDA Bulletin No. 56, “Nomenclature of the Apple”, cataloged more than 14,000 different American apple varieties. They bore lyrical names such as Seek-No-Further, Bottle Greening, Victoria Limbertwig, Prissy Gum, Winter Banana, Maiden’s Blush, Sheepnose and Nickajack. Jefferson himself cultivated varieties including Esopus Spitzenburg, Rall’s Genet and Taliaferro at Monticello. Since apples grown from seeds seldom bear any resemblance to the parent plant, new cultivars developed accidentally in orchards as often as they were specifically bred from grafted rootstocks. Small orchards and backyard gardeners created apples specific to their region, blending characteristics like color, flavor, acidity, resistance to cold or heat, and storage ability to fill thousands of niche apple needs. By WWII the number of apple strains was nearly 17,000.
In the second half of the 20th century, America’s food culture shifted towards mass-production to feed a growing population, increasing mobile and prosperous. Small farms gave way to agribusiness, and plant diversity suffered. Apples were now bred for storage, disease resistance, transport and uniformity. Thousands of apple varieties vanished, either going extinct or fading into obscurity in overgrown, abandoned orchards. Today, only 15 varieties account for more than 90% of U.S. production. The top three varieties, Red Delicious (from an Iowan cultivar of the 1870s), Golden Delicious (West Virginia, 1914), and Granny Smith (Australia, 1868), account for over 50% of all apple sales in the U.S.
Here in Chicago, there’s a group that’s fighting against the disappearance of apple varietals. Chicago Rarities Orchard Project (CROP) is part of a small but growing movement to preserve and restore fruit diversity, and they’re starting with apples. In conjunction with NeighborSpace, the City of Chicago, and Altamanu landscape architects, they’re planning to open their first orchard in Logan Square as early as this fall. In the meantime they’ve been collecting rare seedlings in a nursery at Chicago Honey Co-op, and promoting awareness for their project with the help of Chicago Botanic Gardens, Logan Square Kitchen, Gingko Organic Gardens, Slow Food Chicago, Slow Food USA, and Uncommon Ground restaurant. Orchards are slower to get running than regular community gardens, and need a better guarantee of permanent space usage, but once the orchard starts producing fruit it will be an asset to Logan Square and whichever other neighborhoods host future orchards. CROP plans to give at least half their harvest to schools, foodbanks, or directly to the community through open-picking days, giving Chicagoans an opportunity to learn about our threatened pomological heritage the best possible way: eating it.
We at The Spice House are always thrilled to see new developments in the Chicago food scene, whether it’s the production or consumption ends. And although apples, since they’re not a spice, don’t fall directly into our purview, we bet our Apple Pie Spice will make great pies out of whatever rare varietals CROP grows. We can’t wait to try it out.
If you can’t wait for CROP’s orchard to get started, and you want to render a service to your country by adding (or saving) a useful plant, there are several sources for heirloom apple scions. Trees of Antiquity is a California-based nursery that sells a wide variety of heirloom fruit trees, from apples to jujubes. Urban Homestead or Virginia has been seeking out antique Southern apples since 1992, and now sells rootstocks from nearly 100 varietals, including several they’ve saved from near-extinction. Both these nurseries cater to home gardeners and hobby orchardists, so if you’ve got a plot of earth big enough for an apple tree, you can grow your own delicious history.