Plants & Gardens Blog

A Curious Tale: The Apple in North America

In 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 Referred to in American Publications from 1804 to 1904. This nearly 400-page compendium covers an era known to fruit historians as the golden age of American pomology, a period running from the presidency of Thomas Jefferson to the Wright brothers' liftoff at Kitty Hawk. It was a time of unparalleled public interest in new fruit varieties, when apples, pears, and peaches were critically reviewed and rated with the enthusiasm now reserved for Hollywood movies and popular music.

Ragan's Nomenclature lists 17,000 different apple names. Many of them are corrupted versions of the same name: 'Juniting', 'Juneting', 'Genneting', 'June-Eating', and 'Juneating White', for instance. Others are the inevitable nicknames that attach themselves to old or widely disseminated varieties: 'New York Pippin', 'Kentucky Red Streak', 'Illinois Red', 'Funkhouser', and 'Ben Davis', for example, are one and the same apple. But even allowing for overlap, the number of distinct varieties grown by Americans in the 19th century was somewhere around 14,000.

To the modern consumer used to apples that are sweet, round, and red, this number may seem enormously redundant. But in the 19th century, apples came in all shapes and guises, some with rough, sandpapery skin, others as misshapen as potatoes, and ranging from the size of a cherry to bigger than a grapefruit. Colors ran the entire spectrum with a wonderful impressionistic array of patterning—flushes, stripes, splashes, and dots. There was an apple for every community, taste, purpose, and season, with winter varieties especially prized. Apples were used for making cider, baking, drying, eating out of hand—even as livestock feed.

Compare all of this to the 90 or so varieties grown commercially in North America today, or to the handful of shiny cultivars on display at the local supermarket, and you are immediately faced with a pomological conundrum: How could Americans grow 14,000 different apples in the 19th century, and a hundred years later be conversant with only a few varieties, most notably, 'Red Delicious', 'Golden Delicious', and 'Granny Smith'?

Captain John Smith
In 1629, Captain John Smith noted that peaches, apples, apricots, and figs "prosper[ed] exceedingly" in the Jamestown colony.

What's more, while it is commonly held that the apple in your lunchbox, Malus domestica, is native to North America—Ralph Waldo Emerson once described the apple as "the American fruit"—it actually descends from imported, Old World stock. Shake on that tree for a while and you are confronted with an even greater riddle: If the apple is not native, how did Americans come to grow some 14,000 varieties by the end of the 19th century?

Considering furthermore how these two questions run in different directions—Why so many then? versus Why so few now?—you would be right to conclude that the history of the apple in America is a curious tale, one that has as much to say about who we are as a people as it does about our favorite pome. You would be right to conclude also that any apple cataloged by Ragan and still being grown today probably has a pretty good story to tell.

Take the 'Ralls Genet', for example. This variety is thought to have originated from cuttings given to Thomas Jefferson by Edmund Charles Genet, French minister to the United States from 1793 to 1794. According to one account, Jefferson passed the cuttings on to Amherst County, Virginia, nurseryman Caleb Ralls, who grafted them and then disseminated the variety throughout Virginia and into the western territories. In time, 'Ralls Genet' emerged as a favorite apple in the Ohio valley because of its late bloom—a characteristic that allows it to weather late-spring frosts unscathed.

But its success was short lived. In the 1920s, commercial orchardists began focusing on growing fewer varieties more efficiently, and as result, many older cultivars fell into disuse. Fortunately, in 1939 'Ralls Genet' got a new lease on life when Japanese breeders dipped into the American gene pool, crossing 'Ralls Genet' with another favorite son, 'Red Delicious'. The resulting apple, christened 'Fuji', was released in 1962 and has gone on to claim a significant share of the commercial market, recently overtaking 'Granny Smith' as the third-most-popular apple in the United States, behind 'Red Delicious' and 'Golden Delicious'. Peter Hatch, director of gardens and grounds at Monticello, the home of Jefferson, sums up well the 'Ralls Genet'-'Fuji' connection. "We like to say that Thomas Jefferson was not only the author of the Declaration of Independence and the father of the University of Virginia, but probably the grandfather of the 'Fuji'."

This is but one story out of thousands hinted at in Ragan's Nomenclature. To make sense of them, we must go back to 1607 and Jamestown, Virginia, where North American apple cultivation began. Imagine if you can what it was like to get off a ship and look out over a wild and untamed continent. There were no towns, no stores, very little cleared land on which to grow things—and, except for a few scattered Native American plantings—no cultivated fruit trees, only wild crabapples, mulberries, serviceberries, cherries, plums, pawpaws, and persimmons.

Early Attempts at Fruit Growing

Eventually, the settlers learned how to use these strange fruits. (Taking a bite of an unripe persimmon, Jamestown's Captain John Smith noted, would "draw a man's mouth awrie with much torment.") But in the meantime, the settlers had to get on with the business of feeding their families. And for this they had come prepared with seeds, cuttings, and small plants from the best European stock.

Early attempts at fruit growing were apparently quite successful. In 1629, Smith noted that peaches, apples, apricots, and figs "prosper[ed] exceedingly" in the colony. In 1642, the first governor of Virginia, William Berkley, cultivated some 1,500 fruit trees at his Green Spring estate, and two years later, he decreed that every planter must, "for every 500 acres granted him ... enclose and fence a quarter-acre of ground near his dwelling house for orchards and gardens."

By 1686, the status of horticulture in Virginia was such that William Fitzhugh of Westmoreland County, describing his plantation in a letter, mentions "a large orchard of about 2,500 apple trees, most grafted, well fenced with a locust fence." And by the close of the century, there were few plantations in Virginia without an orchard— some boasted as many as 10,000 trees.

This rather amazing transplantation of European fruits occurred all up and down the eastern seaboard. But it was not a seamless transition. Many of the grafted fruit trees brought from Europe proved unsuited to the climate of the New World. Harsh winters, late-spring frosts (virtually unknown in England), and summer heat and humidity killed some trees outright and kept others from thriving. Some did take hold, though, and a few of these Old World sorts—varieties like the 'May Duke' cherry, the 'Calville Blanc d'Hiver' apple, and the 'Green Gage' plum—live on today in the orchards of antique fruit collectors and connoisseurs.

Seed-Grown Fruit Trees

It was the seeds from the introduced varieties, more than the varieties themselves, that would spawn a revolution of new American cultivars. Seeds from fruit trees often produce haphazard results. Apple seeds, in particular, are notoriously variable, yielding seedlings, or pippins, that bear often only a glancing resemblance to the parent tree. This tendency, known to botanists as heterozygosity, allowed the apple, by sheer force of numbers, to make itself at home in the New World.

Thomas Jefferson
In the mid-1780s, Thomas Jefferson boasted in a letter from Paris to the Reverend James Madison, "They have no apples here to compare with our Newtown pippin."

That is the positive side of apple variability. The negative side is that most apple trees grown from seed produce fruit of only passable (or inferior) quality—the pomological equivalent of a mongrel dog, known to apple aficionados as a spitter. Why the settlers would choose to grow seedlings rather than grafting proven varieties—that is, joining cuttings, called scions, to rooted plants, called rootstocks—may seem a mystery. But think again of that fellow who has just come ashore at Jamestown. This man will soon be granted a tract of land that is unthinkably vast by European standards: perhaps a hundred acres, perhaps five hundred. He will have to clear the land by hand and get his crops planted—all the while keeping an eye out for members of the indigenous population who don't especially like what he's up to.

Even if this man knows how to graft fruit trees, he has little time to do it. (Furthermore, until about 1800, grafting was generally distrusted anyway. It was thought that grafted stock declined in vigor over time.) And considering the amount of land he intends to convert to orchard, grafted stock is really out of the question. What he needs most are trees that can be propagated cheaply and without a lot of effort. Seedlings are the perfect solution.

Besides that, the chief purpose of the colonial fruit garden was not to grow fruit for the table, but rather to secure a supply of "most excellent and comfortable drinks"—cider from apples, perry from pears, mobby and brandy from peaches. In 1676, Thomas Glover, visiting from England, noted "fair and large orchards" in the New World, "bearing all sorts of English apples ... of which they make great store of cider." Virginian William Fitzhugh allowed that the cider produced from his 2,500 trees was worth as much as 15,000 pounds of tobacco. Since good cider can be made from almost any kind of apple, seedling trees were an ingenious solution for the colonial planter.

Johnny Appleseed: Apple Entrepreneur

Tim Hensley

John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, is one of the most enduring American legends. Every year, schoolchildren learn how Johnny befriended a wolf, slept in a hollow log, and wore his dinner pot as a hat. But while these peculiarities make for a good story, they hardly capture the essence of this enigmatic man.

A disciple of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish scientist, philosopher, and theologian, Chapman spread good seeds and a new take on the kingdom of heaven, trekking barefoot in a sackcloth shirt through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana during the first half of the 19th century. Chapman started his first nursery near Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania, with seeds collected from the cider mills of local farmers. When the frontier moved west, the story goes, Chapman pulled up stakes, gave his farm to a poor woman with children, and headed down the Ohio River in a kind of catamaran made from two hollowed-out logs that were lashed together, one filled with a cargo of precious seeds. The resourceful Massachusetts native scouted routes along which pioneers would most likely settle. He planted apple seedlings on land along these routes, which he willingly dug up and sold—or gave—to arriving settlers. By the 1830s, Chapman owned a string of nurseries that spread from western Pennsylvania across Ohio and into Indiana. He died in 1845 owning 1,200 acres of land.

One of his biographers writes that Chapman "had the thick bark of queerness on him"—and few would disagree. But without this rough covering, "Johnny Appleseed" and other pioneers like him might never have tamed the frontier, sowing it with the seeds of familiar, Old World plants. Chapman's nurseries no doubt produced many valuable new apples. Perhaps a few even made it into W.H. Ragan's USDA Bulletin No. 56, Nomenclature of the Apple, the essential reference for apple lovers, which in 1905 cataloged around 17,000 apples.

Over time, the orchards would serve as vast trial plots for the improvement of imported Old World stocks; occasionally, an apple with unusual and desirable characteristics would arise. This new apple might be rather large, or highly colored, or exceptionally early, or prolific; maybe it kept like a cobblestone or made an exquisite apple pie; maybe it was just the best apple you'd ever tasted. Eventually, the farmer who planted the tree would graft new starts, and this formerly unknown seedling would join the ranks of new American varieties being passed on to future generations. Thus emerged, for example, the 'Hewes Crab', possibly a cross of an apple of European origin and a native crabapple. In pressing the juice-filled 'Hewes Crab' for cider, wrote Philadelphia farmer Henry Wynkoop in 1814, "the liquor flows from the pumice as water from a sponge."

In time, so many new American apples came to the fore—varieties like 'Father Abraham', 'Monstrous Pippin', 'Roxbury Russet', and 'Maiden's Blush'—that European transplants were soon displaced. In the mid-1780s, Thomas Jefferson boasted in a letter from Paris to the Reverend James Madison, "They have no apples here to compare with our Newtown pippin."

The first American text on pomology, the science of fruit cultivation, was published in 1815 by William Cox. A View of the Cultivation of Fruit Trees described "one hundred ... of the most estimable apples cultivated in our country"—most of them American varieties as distinct from the Old World stock as the Americans themselves. These trees would be carried by the settlers across the Appalachian Mountains and into the western frontier, where seedling orchards would again be planted, and yet another generation of new cultivars would emerge.

"It is remarkable how closely the history of the Apple-tree is connected with that of man," wrote Henry David Thoreau in 1862. Of course, Thoreau ate his apples to the beat of a different drummer, lamenting the passage of seedling cider orchards and holding a preference for apples "sour enough to set a squirrel's teeth on edge and make a jay scream." He disavowed faith in the "selected lists of pomological gentlemen." "Their 'Favorites' and 'Nonsuches' and 'Seek-no-farthers'," he wrote, "commonly turn out very tame and forgettable. They are eaten with comparatively little zest, and have no real tang nor smack to them."

Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau held a preference for apples "sour enough to set a squirrel's teeth on edge and make a jay scream."

But where Thoreau looked to the wild for sustenance, many Europeans came to prefer the new American sorts. In fact, all during the 19th century, Virginia's Albemarle County enjoyed a lucrative trade exporting the 'Newtown Pippin'. Andrew Stevenson, the American minister to the court of St. James's, was so enthusiastic about America's "best apple" that he had two barrels of the 'Newtown Pippin' shipped to England in 1838 and gave them to the new queen, Victoria, who was so impressed by his graciousness (and the apple's fine flavor) that she lifted an English tax on imported apples. By 1898, 'Newtown Pippin' was commanding a price at the Liverpool market three times that of any other American apple.

This passion for fine fruit was one of the hallmarks of the 19th century. Andrew Jackson Downing's 1869 Fruits and Fruit Trees of America describes nearly 2,000 apples, pears, peaches, plums, and a host of lesser-known fruits—most of American origin. His work is awe inspiring for the number of varieties it describes. When you read the careful descriptions of apples like 'Catface' ("from Kentucky, fruit large, conical, truncated"), 'King Tom' ("a crooked, twisting, tangled grower"), 'Summer Pound Royal' ("now pretty widely disseminated in some parts of Michigan, Ohio, and in the South and West"), and 'Sweet Bellflower' ("slightly ribbed, greenish yellow, with a few brown dots"), you realize just how serious 19th-century gardeners were about growing their own fruit.

The Arrival of Mass-Market Apples

The golden age of American pomology came to an abrupt end in the early 20th century. Inexpensive railway shipping and mechanical refrigeration enabled orchards to distribute apples year-round. Home orcharding declined as suburbs emerged. Large concerns in the West forced many smaller orchards in the East out of business. And when those quintessential mass-market apples, the patented and inoffensively sweet 'Red Delicious' and 'Golden Delicious', took hold in the early 1920s, many highly flavored heirlooms were effectively cut out of the commercial trade.

How two such average apples could displace a host of fine cultivars is a story in itself. Both were introduced by Stark Bro's Nursery, of Louisiana, Missouri. 'Red Delicious', a chance seedling from Iowa, turned out to be amazingly productive in a variety of soils, a characteristic that Stark Bro's touted with great effect. 'Golden Delicious' was discovered by Paul Stark on a hillside farm in Odessa, West Virginia. As the story goes, Stark traveled 1,000 miles by train and 20 miles on horseback to see for himself the apple that a farmer, Anderson Mullins, had sent him samples of two years running. Stark reported that when he first surveyed Mullins's orchard, he found only a dismal mix of wild seedlings—"miserable runts." But then, as he started to leave, he turned around and "Saw it!: There, looming forth in the midst of leafless, barren trees was one tree with green foliage, that looked as if it had been transplanted from the Garden of Eden. That tree's boughs were bending to the ground beneath a tremendous crop of great, glorious, glowing golden apples."

Before the day was over, Stark had paid $5,000 for the tree, roughly $100,000 in today's economy. He then built a two-story, woven-wire cage around it to deter any would-be propagators. That in itself was enough to make you want a cutting. Little wonder, then, that photographs of the caged tree, with its $5,000 price tag, were prominently displayed in every Stark Bro's catalog for years to come.

One Red, One Green, One Yellow

Today's mass merchandisers aren't nearly so sensational. But given the increasing homogeneity of American culture, and what Peter Hatch calls "our peculiarly suburban alienation from the land," it may be that sensationalism is no longer needed to promote an average apple. "One of the weaknesses of consumers," wrote George Holmes in the United States Department of Agriculture Yearbook, 1904, "is an admiration for foods that are polished or have a gloss, and this nickel-plate fancy plays some queer pranks with foods."

If Holmes were writing today, his comments would no doubt be much the same. Mass merchandisers now view apple varieties in terms of color, disease resistance, shelf life, and their ability to ship long distances without bruising. Grocery stores often stock only one red, one green, and one yellow variety, which usually means 'Red Delicious', 'Golden Delicious', and 'Granny Smith'. And as any consumer knows, those big, beautiful, and perfect-looking apples often taste like sweetened sawdust.

Still, the apple remains big business in this country today: About 7,500 commercial apple producers in 36 states harvest 48,000 tons of fruit, second in production only to China. The average American consumes some 16 pounds of apples each year, making the apple the nation's most popular fruit after the banana.

How long the apple will retain this status is open to debate. Some breeders worry that the exclusive use of grafted trees in American orchards is a prescription for disaster, since cloned trees, cut off from the broader Malus gene pool, are less able to adapt to increasing insect and disease pressure. Others breeders are more optimistic and have initiated breeding programs that cross and back-cross commercially viable apples (including some heirlooms, which are enjoying an increasing popularity today) with crabapples and other Malus species in hopes that once again, new, hardier, and tastier varieties will emerge from the American soil, each to play its own unique role in the curious tale that is the history of the apple in America.

Tim Hensley runs Urban Homestead in Bristol, Virginia, a mail-order nursery specializing in antique apples. The father of eight children, he has written for a variety of publications including Mother Earth News, Grit, Highlights for Children, Fine Gardening, Homelife, Old-House Journal, and Smithsonian.

Image, top of page: