Between my recent visit to Merridale Cidery and the many pints of applesauce I’ve canned in the past couple of weeks, I’ve got apples on my mind these days.
There are few things more evocative of autumn than a freshly picked apple. After the lush abundance of summer’s soft fruits, the crisp texture and slightly tart flavour of a freshly picked apple is tonic. The smell of them cooking in my kitchen is a sure sign that summer is winding down.
Apples are so abundant and so common now that we tend to take them for granted. Because we see them in the store year round, we no longer appreciate them as a seasonal fruit and, because we see just a few commercial varieties offered for sale, we’ve long since lost our appreciation for the variety of flavours, textures, and colours apples once brought to the table.
Apples were once a major commercial export crop in Canada but, for decades now, production has declined annually. Canadians eat about 35 pounds of apples per person per year but, increasingly, those apples are imported either from nearby Washington State, from New Zealand, or from China. In 2008 Canada ranked 27th in world apple production, and that number is likely to continue to decline.
I’m saddened that, in a place so perfectly suited to growing apples, commercial apple orchards are on the decline. I’m sadder still to see an ongoing loss of apple varieties. Only 15 or so of the 7,500 known apple varieties are grown for commercial sale.
The apple’s biology inclines it to diversity. Apples have 57,000 genes (compared with humans’ 30,000) and are triploids, with three sets of chromosomes that cannot be divided evenly. The potential for variation in such an arrangement is enormous. They’re a very adaptable crop.
In the wild, apples grow quite readily from seeds. However, like most perennial fruits, apples are ordinarily propagated asexually by grafting. This is because seedling apples are an example of "extreme heterozygotes", in that rather than inheriting DNA from their parents to create a new apple with those characteristics, they are instead different from their parents, sometimes radically.[i]
Apples are easily grafted, meaning that you can cut a piece from one apple tree, splice it into the living stock of another apple tree, and it will grow. This attribute enables orchardists to graft an apple with desirable qualities that may not be particularly hardy onto the root stock of a tree with less desirable qualities that is more able to withstand seasonal weather conditions. It also enables orchardists to graft stock from large trees onto root stock with a dwarf or semi-dwarf habit in order to grow smaller, more easily managed trees. It’s even possible to graft several different varieties of apple into a single tree.
Genetic diversity and its affinity for grafting have made the apple an extremely versatile and important food crop for more than two thousand years.
Apples have been cultivated for their sweet or bitter flavours, for acidity or lack of it, for tender or very firm (or red, pink, white, pale yellow, or pale green) flesh, for their tall or dwarf growing habits, for their ability to be pruned into espaliers (living fences or trellises), and for their ability to withstand specific sets of weather conditions. They have been grown in shapes ranging from very round to almost conical and with skins that are green, yellow, orange, red, brown or any number of combinations of these colours. Some apples are rough. Some are smooth and shiny. Some are very large, and others are tiny.
It used to be that a drive across country at harvest-time would enable a person to encounter and sample many different apple varieties. It’s more difficult to do that now. Most heritage apples – not considered commercially viable crops – survive in back yards, in small holding orchards, or through the concerted efforts of seed savers and seed banks.
Loss of plant diversity is of concern to all of us. If we grow only a few varieties of any crop, the crop’s survival can be threatened by inclement weather, or by diseases or pests which spread easily through genetically similar plants. If we grow many varieties within that same crop, the chances are much better that at least some of them will survive regardless of any adverse conditions that may come our way.
Growing varieties that are best adapted to local conditions rather than concerning ourselves exclusively with their commercial properties is also kinder to the environment. Plants well suited to their growing conditions are more amenable to organic farming techniques, better enabling farmers to avoid the use of pesticides, fungicides, chemical fertilizers, or extra watering.
And, of course, crop diversity brings with it the joy of being able to experience many different flavours, colours, and textures instead of limiting ourselves to just a few.
You can support genetic diversity within our apple crops and help to ensure the continuing survival of heritage species by seeking out and buying heritage variety apples.
Farm markets can be a great place to find heritage apples. In recent years we’ve found Gravenstein, Northern Spy, Fall Russett, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Cortland, and Rome Beauty apples at the weekend market here in Duncan.
Specialty orchards are beginning to make their mark too. Look for heritage orchards in your local agricultural directory. Many sell not only apples, but also trees for planting.
Please seek out some heritage apple varieties this fall. Enjoy your apple a day with good conscience, and enjoy some new-to-you flavours too.