The Legacy of Johnny Appleseed

Dan Bussey —  February 19, 2015 — Leave a comment
Guest blogger Dan Bussey is Orchard Manager at Seed Savers Exchange’s Heritage Farm, where he maintains the nearly 900 different varieties of apple trees in their Historic Orchard.

 

John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed—the legendary character of somewhat skewed Disney lore—was a real figure whose story has captivated generations.

Learn more about apple varieties from 2 to 3 p.m. Sunday at our Seed Swap lecture, “Forgotten Tastes: Our Apple Heritage.” The seed swap follows from 3 to 5 p.m.

PHOTO: Illustrations by Alois Lunzer depict apple cultivars Baxter and Stark (1909).

Illustrations of apple cultivars. Photo by Alois Lunzer (Brown Brothers Continental Nurseries Catalog 1909) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Chapman was a complicated man who was driven to be at the edge of the frontier as settlers moved westward. His passion was a deep appreciation of nature, which prompted him to raise apple trees for settlers to buy in order to stake their homestead claims. He collected apple seeds from cider mills back east, then spread these seeds in nursery plots up and down the land along the Ohio River. Chapman was not concerned about what varieties these seedlings became, as they always had a use—whether for eating, cooking, or making hard cider if the apples  were unpalatable. But his methods of propagation were important for those who ended up with his trees. 

Grafting keeps apples true to the original plant.

While Chapman may not have been concerned with flavor, it is a concern for orchardists growing apples for public consumption. Seedling apples are the product of the hybridization of the parent tree and whatever apple variety pollinated it. The old adage “every apple plants an orchard” is quite true. Take the seeds of any apple you find today and plant them; when they grow and finally bear fruit, you will occasionally find apples similar to the apple you took seeds from, but more than likely, you’ll find very different fruit, with different colors, different flavors, and smaller or larger sizes. Most will be of poorer quality than the parent, but for the thousands of seedlings grown, every once in a while, a really special apple tree comes along. In order to keep this variety true and to produce more trees of it, the tree has to be vegatatively propagated—in other words, grafted.

PHOTO: Apple tree trunk, showing long-healed graft of cultivar on to rootstock.

Alkemene apple tree grafted on to rootstock. Photo by Dirk Ingo Franke (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Grafting has been known for centuries, and was a common skill for farmers and orchardists until modern times. Today, many fruit growers have never grafted a single tree and instead buy them from nurseries. However, grafting is making a comeback, and it is satisfying for home orchardists to know they have a choice of what fruit they can grow for their family using this traditional method of propagation.

Cider apples have a diverse heritage.

Cider (and what we’re talking about here is hard cider or cyder) has made an epic comeback in the past ten years in the beverage industry. Cideries (as opposed to breweries) are springing up in nearly every state and are all the rage. What has happened to bring this quaint, nearly forgotten beverage of colonial America to a point where conventions across the country celebrate the amazing diversity of cider styles? In truth, cider has never disappeared from our culture completely, and the rebirth of its popularity was long overdue.

In colonial America, the tradition of cidermaking arrived from Europe, as did the apple that could make cider. Cider was popular in early America as it could be made by almost anyone—it didn’t require lots of land to grow grain, as beer did. Find a tree to harvest apples from and you could make your own cider. Any apple variety would work—including those homesteaded, seedling-grown apples that weren’t good for eating. (Thank you, Johnny Appleseed!)

PHOTO: An old-fashioned hammer mill chopped apples for cidermaking in home presses.

An old-fashioned hammer mill chopped apples for cidermaking in home presses. By Red58bill (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Do you need special apples to make hard cider? Yes and no. Traditional cider varieties from Europe are those that have good flavor, but more importantly, have tannins that give cider character and body when fermented. Tannins, part of the chemical group known as phenolics, are commonly found in red wines, and cause that feeling of dryness in the mouth, a pleasant sensation to many. Tannins can be added to the juice of fresh cider when fermented, and improve the flavor.

Cider styles vary greatly from sweet to dry and sparkling to still, and many now have added flavors such as oak, hops, maple sugar, fruit of all kinds, yeasts of all kinds, and a wide variety of fermentation styles—each distinctly different. Whatever your preference, true artisanal cider is a natural product made from only apple juice and natural or added yeast to ferment it. Mass-marketed cider is generally made from juice concentrates, added sweeteners, and forced carbonation (to make it sparkle). Both forms of cider have fewer carbohydrates (and calories) than beer and lower alcohol content than wine. Cider was a refreshing drink for colonial settlers and remains so for today’s connoisseurs.

Regardless of your preferred apple tastes, Johnny Appleseed’s 200-year-old legacy is alive and well, from Albemarle Pippin to Zill. You can even find some heritage varieties at Seed Savers Exchange.

Mr. Bussey will return in 2016 to teach a cider-making workshop. Don’t miss him at Harvest Weekend, September 19–20, 2015. 


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Dan Bussey

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Dan Bussey is the Orchard Manager at Seed Savers Exchange's Heritage Farm, where he maintains the nearly 900 different varieties of apple trees in their Historic Orchard. He blogs for Seed Savers Exchange at blog.seedsavers.org.

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