The Legacy of Johnny Appleseed

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

Got seed? Need seed? Swap it!

For gardeners, February is an exciting month: it’s seed-starting time! That’s why we’ve made Sunday, February 24, a day dedicated entirely to seeds.

limas and othersThe morning kicks off with classes led by our friends from Seed Savers Exchange (they’re coming in from Decorah, Iowa). Shannon Carmody takes you step by step through a “Seed-Saving Primer” from 9-10 a.m., then digs a little deeper for “Planning Your Garden for Seed Saving” from 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.

You can register online here.

After you take a lunch break in the Garden Cafe, settle in at the Alsdorf Auditorium at 2 p.m. for a lovely hour of “Seed Letters,” a free lecture by SSE’s seed historian Sarah Straate. Sarah charmed the audience with a version of this presentation at the Seed Savers Exchange Annual Conference last year (the photographs she shows are terrific!). 

At 3 p.m., it’s time for Seed Swap! Bring seeds you harvested from your own garden, or seed packets that you never got around to finishing. (I’m bringing French marigolds that I harvested from my community garden plot last year, love-in-a-mist seedheads from my front yard garden, and a few packets of never-did-grow-those veggie seeds). Make sure your seed is clearly labeled and include as much info as you can to help out your fellow swappers.

Seed Swapbean seeds_RJC9663No seeds to swap? No problem! Generous donations from several of our favorite seed resources should ensure plenty of seeds for all.

Also on hand: staff and volunteer experts (including master gardeners from our Plant Information Service desk) who can answer all your questions about seed starting, germination, seed saving, and everyone’s favorite topic: growing tomatoes.

This is our second annual Seed Swap—the first swap was so much fun that we can’t wait to see some of the same faces there again—hopefully bringing seeds harvested from last year’s seed-swapped crops!  

Saving seeds can be fun and easy—to get you started, here are five vegetables with easy-to-save seeds to harvest for next year’s swap:

  1. Peas. Just train them up a trellis, fence, or tuteur, let them grow, then let dry on the vine—instant pea seeds for next year’s planting. Every gardener (even kids!) can do this, and it’s fun to pop the dried peas out of their shells mid-summer.
  2. Beans. Incredibly beautiful seeds dry right on the bush, vine, or pole. Harvest when pods are dry but before they crack open and scatter their contents. Do a little reading beforehand, as there are many different types and varieties of beans.
  3. Lettuce. All lettuce likes it cool outside. Once summer’s heat kicks in, lettuce bolts, then sets hundreds and hundreds of seeds per plant. Harvesting is easy, though: slip a bag over the seedhead and tie it in place. Once seed has set and dried, just clip the stalk, invert the bag, and shake seed loose. Instant storage, too!
  4. Tomatoes. As everyone who’s ever bitten into a fresh tomato knows, there’s goo around the seeds in the center. How best to separate out the seeds? Talk to our tomato experts at the Seed Swap, and check out this blog post.
  5. Parsley. Like lettuce, parsley eventually bolts and sets seeds that are easy to collect in a bag. Unlike lettuce, the process takes two years, which can seem…challenging. It’s actually quite simple: Let your parsley plant grow (try not to harvest TOO much from it) straight through ‘til fall. The leaves will yellow and wilt. As winter arrives, mulch the plant lightly with straw or leaves. The following spring, the plant will re-energize, sending up flower shoots that set many tiny, poppy seed-sized seeds. Harvest as above for lettuce. 

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and