“The goldenrod is yellow. The corn is turning brown. The trees in apple orchards with fruit are bending down.”— Helen Hunt Jackson
Known as the king of all fruits, the apple is found in every farmstand at this time of the year throughout the country. In fact, humans have been enjoying apples since 6500 BC. Apples are considered to be one of the oldest fruits in existence. Originating in Central Asia, which stretches from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea, countries colloquially known as the “the stans”. The wild ancestor, Malus sieversii, is still found growing there today. Apples were brought to North America by European Colonists in the 17th century. Known as crabapples, or common apples, it tends to be a small, tart, decorative fruit with lovely spring flowers. However, the apple we eat today is from a cultivated tree of a different species known as Malus pumila. Something you may not know is that they are all in the rose family (Rosaceae).
In the 19th century there were more than 14,000 known cultivars of apples. Year 1905, The United States Department of Agriculture published a bulletin by staff pomologist W.H. Ragan, entitled “Nomenclature of the Apple: A Catalog of the Known Varieties to in American Publications from 1804 to 1904”. At this time, new varieties of apples, peaches and pears were the Kardashians and Lady Gaga of today.
How did we get so many different types?
Apple trees can not be grown true from their seeds. Because apple trees are pollinated by insects, the seeds from its fruit are a hybrid of the two trees. It will be an apple tree, just not the same as the parent. But of course that is how they were initially planted, Johnny Appleseed style sewn hither and yon. The end product was sometimes edible straight from hand, but most were only good fermented into cider. Imagine an apple so bitter and tannic that one bite will cause you to immediately spit it out and wish you had gone for that green Jolly Rancher instead. Surprisingly, those apples make the best ciders and by cider, I mean hard cider, not the sweet brown stuff in a plastic jug. Poor sanitation was the main reason our founding fathers were fond of cider. It was safer to drink than water and just as valuable as money.
Apple trees grown from seed are called “heterozygous” which basically means having dissimilar pairs of genes Therefore, to grow the apple of your choice, all trees must be vegetatively propagated by grafting or budding methods. The European settlers at Jamestown in 1607, brought with them cuttings from Europe. These grafted trees produced apples of all shapes and sizes. Some had rough, sandpapery skin, others as misshapen as potatoes, ranging from the size of a cherry to the size of a grapefruit. Colors ran the entire spectrum with flushes, stripes, splashes and dots. There were apples for every community, taste, purpose and season. The names were equally as colorful – Roxbury Russet, Maiden’s Blush, Monstrous Pippin, Ralls Genet.
Sadly all this changed in the early 20th century with the development of inexpensive railway shipping and mechanical refrigeration. Apples were now shipped far and wide, year-round. Home orchards declined as the population grew and suburbs emerged. The general public demanded fruit of uniform shape, color and size that also had a very long shelf life. We have Stark Brothers Nursery to thank for the introduction of the Red Delicious and the Golden Delicious apples. Both were chance seedlings that turned out to be highly productive in a wide variety of soil types. For many decades these were the apples Americans grew up eating – bland, overly sweet, mealy.
Thankfully today that is changing. As in many other areas of farming, there has been a resurgence of heirloom varieties not just for flavor, but also for disease and pest resistance. Just a few hundred miles from us is the largest apple collection in the world. The New York State Agricultural Experiment Station is located in Geneva, NY is ground zero for The National Apple Collection. With numbers topping 6,885 varieties, this appletopia may revolutionize the nation, and perhaps the worlds apple industry.
Perfect Apple Sauce
If you have never had homemade applesauce, you are in for a treat!
4 large apples – cored, *peeled and chopped
(you can make sauce out of any apples, but soft varieties are best. Mixing sweet and tart varieties are even better. Suggestions of sweet are: Cortland, Macintosh. Tart: Rome, Liberty or Ida Red) *If you want your apple sauce to be pink, leave the skins on one red apple.
¾ cup water
¼ cup white sugar (or your favorite sweetener – maple syrup, honey, agave syrup. Add more or less depending on your taste)
1/2 tsp cinnamon (optional)
In heavy saucepan, combine all ingredients. Cover, and cook over medium heat for 10-20 minutes, or until apples are soft. Allow to cool, then mash with a fork or potato peeler.
Slow Cooker Apple Butter
6 ½ lbs apples – peeled, cored & chopped (use a mixture of varieties of apples for best flavor)
½ cup white sugar ( according to your taste – choose your sweetener)
½ cup packed brown sugar (this is an important ingredient as it adds color and a rich flavor)
1 ½ Tbs cinnamon
¼ tsp salt
1Tbs vanilla extract
Place all ingredients in a slow cooker, and mix well.
Cook on low for about 10 hours. The apple butter should be thick and dark brown
*If desired, use a, immersion blender to make it smooth. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or freeze in small containers.