Where Have All the Apples Gone? An Investigation into the Disappearance of Apple Varieties and the Detectives Who Are Out to Find Them
At one time, apple varieties numbered in the thousands, with each strain carrying a unique genetic code. Since the commercialization of apples, the United States has watched that number dwindle into a few choices. Deliberately engineered apples like the Red Delicious and the Granny Smith began to dominate the market, and the heirloom apples our forefathers loved are now relegated to backyards, community orchards, and extinction. We may have lost eighty percent of our traditional apple varieties. This also has an effect on apple biodiversity, leaving the few remaining varieties exposed to disease and pests, and forcing farmers to increase chemical use in order to protect their huge fields of identical apple strains. Because of the identical genetic codes of America’s commercial apples, a single, pesticide-resistant disease could wipe out huge portions of the crop. But there are people who seek to rectify this problem. This paper studies the history of apples, the importance of biodiversity, and apple detectives, lone explorers who recover lost varieties and cultivate them. These detectives are rescuing a piece of our heritage.
Absent from most grocery apple displays are the White Horse, the Summer Ladyfinger, the Junaluskee, the Polly Sweet, and countless other apples, many of which are graced with equally quirky names. In fact, few people have even heard of such apple varieties, yet they are out there, populating family yards, small orchards, and even scientific preservation centers. The story of how they spread to many of these locations is intriguing. It is often through the work of apple detectives: men and women who seek out previously lost apple varieties and reintroduce them to the species. It is a nice thought—individuals looking for rare apples to save, like botanical superheroes rescuing rare beauties in distress. There is no obvious reason to think, however, that their work should be viewed as particularly important or even legitimate; they have no federal support or scientific recognition, and apples as a species are far from going extinct. Overall, it seems like merely a nice hobby, collecting a bunch of different looking apples with funny names as one might collect rare stamps or old records.
As a matter of fact, this conclusion could not be further from the truth. The apples have unique genetic codes, and once they have disappeared, they are gone forever, if not saved by apple detectives. This is a trend that could wreak havoc on the apple species overall because these apple cultivars play a critical role for the species. Already we have seen what effects a reduction in biodiversity could have, and this pattern will only continue if nothing is done to reverse it. Ultimately, due to the biological and cultural significance of apple biodiversity, the work of apple detectives to preserve heirloom apple varieties is an essential practice that should be recognized and sustained.
Before evaluating the role of apple detectives or the importance of apple biodiversity, one must first gain an understanding of this fruit’s history. More specifically, one should examine its history in the United States, as this article concerns the work of American apples and their protectors. The apple was first brought to the United States by European settlers seeking freedom in a new world. At first, however, these European cultivars failed to thrive in the American climate, having adapted to environmental conditions an ocean away. They did, however, release seeds, leading to the fertilization and eventual germination of countless new apple breeds. Suddenly, the number of domesticated apples in North America skyrocketed, and the species displayed an amount of genetic diversity that far surpassed that of Europe or other areas of the world (Juniper).
With so many new and different apple varieties emerging across the country, the fruit became extremely popular and was soon a staple of the American diet. Because the apple had come to capture the nation’s attention, it was inevitable that the fruit would eventually be exploited for profit. Traditionally, apple production had been a domestic affair, with most crops being grown on private properties and family orchards. However, a rise in commercial agriculture at the beginning of the twentieth century, the institution of industrial farming practices, and the introduction of electric refrigeration in transportation all impacted the process of growing apples, and these innovations caused the industry to grow. This expansion of commercial apple growing eventually caused apple biodiversity to decline because growers decided to narrow apple production to only a handful of select cultivars based primarily on two key selling factors: sweetness and appearance. In so doing, the thousands of other existing apple varieties, each specialized for a different use, started to become obsolete in the face of more universally accepted varieties, including the infamous Red Delicious, a sugary sweet and visually appealing apple that has become the poster child of the industry (Pollan).
Like any commercial industry, the focus in apple production remained fixed on profit. Therefore, in order to increase their crop yields, apple growers began to emphasize traits that would produce a good harvest and make transportation more feasible. These traits include disease resistance, hardiness, and durability, and the high importance placed on these characteristics slowly began to replace any focus on taste because, as apple biologist Susan Brown claims, “You can have the best-tasting apple variety in the world, but if it is not making growers money, it is no good” (Browning). The apple industry did not focus on selling apples that would taste best or even function well in the kitchen, but instead focused on varieties that would make the most money in the marketplace.
The shift in apple production did not stop there, however. Rather than rely on natural crossbreeding and pure chance to hopefully create a successful apple variety, growers instead turned to science, and they began implementing breeding practices to develop superior apples that embodied their desired characteristics. Apple breeding proved extremely successful—indeed, almost too much so—in developing apples better suited to commercial agriculture and sale. Because there were now a few superior cultivars whose appearance, durability, disease resistance, and other factors proved far better suited to mass production than the naturally occurring varieties that had been relied upon for centuries, they came to dominate domestic orchards (Lape). As a result, heirloom and other traditional varieties became all but irrelevant; banished from commercial orchards, they were left to grow in front yards, small local orchards, or in the wild. Sometimes they were reduced to a single tree. Consequently, the biodiversity of the apple species dwindled, as there was no one to graft and replant trees and preserve cultivars once the tree died. Indeed, according to one study, of the 15,000 varieties of apples that were once grown in North America, about eighty percent have vanished (O’Driscoll). It should be noted that a number of these faded because they were originally grown for hard cider, a beverage that fell out of popularity during Prohibition. Nevertheless, a great many disappeared because grocery stores and consequently commercial growers favor apples that are both physically attractive and suited to industrial growing practices. Such practices now mean that forty percent of apples sold in grocery markets are a single variety: the Red Delicious (O’Driscoll).
Thus it is clear that the biodiversity of apples has declined since the rise of industrial agriculture; what is not so clear is just what kind of impact this change will have on the species and on us. To begin, one may examine the cultural effects that arise from the loss of heirloom apple varieties. Is it an issue that could devastate the world as we know it? Probably not, and in fact, for some, this loss may exert no impact at all. Yet to others, the disappearance of certain apples may represent a loss more tangible than might be expected. This effect is because, according to author and heirloom advocate Virginia Nazarea, “apples serve both as cultural markers on the landscape and as ways in which humans actively imbue places with identity and history through the processes of everyday conservation” (Nazarea 45). In other words, our relationship to apples—to many types of food, really—cannot be diminished to simple calories and nutrients. Rather, apples can represent memories, places, culture, and so much more. Apple historian Fred Browning recounts his memories as a young boy growing up in Kentucky surrounded by apple vendors in the fall. Accompanied by his family, he would go to the market on Sunday afternoons and be surrounded by apples such as Winter Bananas, Black Twigs, and King Davids. To Browning, these rare and plentiful apple varieties did not just represent a natural marvel, but rather his childhood and family’s way of life (Browning).
Beyond simple ecological effects, the loss of apple biodiversity injures our relationship to food and its significance in our cultural heritage. As a fruit that helped shape our nation’s food culture—after all, what would America be without apple pie?—the apple contains a sort of nostalgia that is not fully embodied by the sour Granny Smith one finds at the grocery store (an apple that was actually domesticated in Australia, not America). To many, a round Sheepnose or burnished Oxheart conjures memories of a grandparent’s’ front-yard apple tree or the apple pie an uncle made each autumn. In sustaining these types of disappearing apple varieties, conservationists are not simply protecting a seed; they are protecting a way of life and a nostalgic cultural heritage (Morgan). These unique apples represent personal connections in many different forms—perhaps a certain apple will remind someone of Saturday afternoons in the fall spent making applesauce with his or her mother; to others, the vast variety of available apples allows them freedom and specificity in the kitchen—depending on personal preferences, they can use a Cox Orange Pippin for fresh eating, a Wolf River for baking, and keep the Black Oxfords for winter storage. It is true that the disappearance of a particular apple may not mean the loss of a memory, but with that disappearance goes the ability to recreate a personal experience or even to share it with future generations. If commercial apple growers continue to neglect and ultimately lose these numerous varieties, a world full of different tastes, memories, colors, and meanings will eventually be lost.
Biodiversity is not only important for personal connections, but it also plays a key role in the biological health of the apple species. In a natural, wild setting—the kinds of conditions in which apples thrived during the nineteenth century—random crossbreeding and infinite hereditary combinations create an unimaginable amount of genetic variability amongst the species. Then, as Charles Darwin would happily inform us, those combinations best suited to overcome the multitude of threats faced by apple trees thrived, while the unsuccessful ones did not. The key factor in this process is the sheer amount of genetic code present; for each climate, condition, or threat, there is likely an apple adapted for it (Pollan). The industrialization of agriculture, however, has produced orchards of genetically identical apple crops that lack any type of biodiversity. In so doing, apple producers have severely limited the crop’s ability to evolve to counteract disease and pests; in fact, they have increased rather than decreased apples’ vulnerability to these threats. In an orchard of apples that are genetically similar and in most cases identical, diseases are able to sweep through and decimate a crop, because there is no genetic variability to present a challenge to the threat; the same is true for pests and fungi (Fowler).
If this problem sounds familiar, that is because a lack of genetic diversity was the cause of the infamous Ireland Potato Famine of the nineteenth century. By 1845, the country had become wholly dependent upon a single crop, the potato, but instead of planting a variety of the hundreds of different cultivars that existed, the Irish instead used a single potato that was genetically identical in almost all of their fields. When a particularly bad fungus arrived, known as the potato blight, it was able to quickly spread throughout the entire country’s potato crop because they were all the same; the lack of variety meant that none of these potatoes had been or would be able to develop a resistance to the disease. And now, because of the similar conditions, a similar issue could develop for our apple crops (Pollan). Essentially, apples’ continual breeding has led to a condition of so-called “over-domestication,” and because of the resulting loss of defense mechanisms, commercial growers have turned to practices commonly found in large-scale industrial agriculture: the use of pesticides and other chemicals to replace the apple’s natural protection mechanisms. According to the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen, a list of commercial produce with the most chemical pesticide residue, the apple has now become the most chemically contaminated type of produce in the marketplace (EWG’s 2013 Shopper’s Guide).
Not only does the apple industry’s reliance on chemicals to overcompensate and protect their crops from pests damage the fruit, it also has detrimental effects on consumers. As more and more pesticides are used to protect apple crops, an increasing number of bugs and fungi that these chemicals are designed to kill are beginning to become resistant, meaning more pesticides and herbicides must be used to achieve the same protective effect (Feree). The result of these practices? Damaging health effects to which the public is increasingly exposed. Over time, continued exposure to pesticides can lead to health problems such as birth defects, cancer, neurological and hormonal disorders, and other diseases. Indeed, according to the Annual Review of Public Health, epidemiological evidence from a study conducted on the health effects of chronic pesticide exposure “clearly suggests that at current exposures pesticides adversely affect human health” (Alavanja). What this means is that the apple industry is currently descending into a vicious cycle: as more breeding occurs to create superior apples with desired traits, apples begin to lose their natural defense mechanisms and become more susceptible to pests, prompting an increased need for chemical pesticides that are damaging to public health. Then, as more bugs and fungi become resistant to these chemicals, their usage increases, further exposing the public and creating a host of health issues. So while not everyone will care about the cultural implications of dwindling apple biodiversity, it is clear that this trend plays a significant environmental role as well, one that could have tangible effects on consumers.
Ultimately, the decline in apple biodiversity has had a profound impact on the species, and a result, it is imperative that this trend be reversed. With apple cultivars permanently disappearing every year, the need to save and preserve them becomes more and more urgent. This phenomena has not gone unnoticed, however; men and women throughout the country have taken it upon themselves to seek out and discover many heirloom apple varieties that are rare or even missing, much in the same way biologists will search for a species they believe is extinct. These investigative horticulturalists are known as “apple detectives,” a quirky name that often elicits a chuckle or two, and, indeed, to many their work seems unconventional. Take, for instance, apple detective John Bunker, known in Maine as “The Apple Whisperer.” He is constantly identifying apples for people who approach him with pictures or descriptions of an unknown tree in their backyard or farmyard. After more than thirty years of experience with countless different apples, he has become quite the expert. Yet the true heart of his work lies in the discovery of apples he has not encountered before, those that he has only read about in old catalogs and horticulture books, like the Blake, a prized apple that has not been seen for generations. Based on these historical descriptions, he will try to identify any trees he comes across whose fruit might be a match. Sometimes he will take a more proactive approach and craft “Wanted” posters to distribute at farmers’ markets and in towns around which the apple is said to have been grown. One such poster reads, “Wanted Alive: Narragansett Apple. Last Seen in York County!…Originated on the farm of Jacob H Harmon, Buxton, Me., in 1873,” with an accompanying sketch of the apple. Sound fanciful, or even pointless? Think again: in his thirty years of work, John Bunker estimates that he has saved anywhere from eighty to a hundred different apple varieties (Jacobsen).
Apple detectives are motivated to do their work for a number of different reasons. For instance, Bunker explains what apples and their infinite varieties mean to him: “I felt like these trees I was finding in my town, and then eventually all over Maine and other places, were a gift to me by someone whom I had never met, who had no idea who I was, who had no idea that I was ever going to be” (Jacobsen). Like many thoughtful consumers, Bunker sees beyond the biological value of apple biodiversity; he understands that not only are all of these cultivars made of different genetic codes, but they are also a collection of stories and experiences all wrapped up into an edible marvel that can fit in one’s hand. As Bunker articulates, “It’s about apples and it’s not about apples… I talk about the history of apples, but you know what? I’m giving a highly political talk, because it’s about our agricultural heritage” (Jacobsen). Bunker’s point is that these apples—the McIntosh, discovered by John McIntosh on his farm in 1811, or the Harrison, a cider apple that had disappeared for fifty years before being rediscovered and grafted in 1976 from a single tree, or thousands of others—represent a legacy of human history passed from one generation to the next. Take a bite of a rosy, speckled Esopus Spitzenburg, and one will experience the same pleasure as Thomas Jefferson, who favored this apple so much that he had thirty-two of its trees planted at Monticello (Pollan). It is an important connection that many consumers, and certainly most commercial apple growers, fail to make, and such a mistake comes at the expense of hundreds of different heirloom varieties that have disappeared since the rise of industrial agriculture.
John Bunker is not alone in his quest to bring apples back from the brink of death. There are many of these apple detectives spread across the country, although most of them operate on the East Coast, where America’s apple history first began. Notable figures include Tom Burford of Charlottesville, Virginia, the author of Apples of North America and an advocate of heirloom cultivars for the past sixteen years. He is a man concerned with the superior quality that many heirloom apples provide in comparison to the Red Delicious or Granny Smith, an apple he has described as “just awful” (Higgins).
Bunker and Burford are simply the investigators, however, and without a little help, these mysterious apples would be positively identified as rare varieties thought to have been lost for years, but little else. That is where small-scale orchardists come in, the people who are willing to take these heirloom varieties and graft them, replant them, spread them, and finally, sell them to eager consumers tired of the same old options at the grocery store. Combine the apple detective and the orchardist, and you get Creighton Lee Calhoun, who resides in Pittsboro, North Carolina, and is the author of the famed apple compendium Old Southern Apples. His orchard once held the 456 apple cultivars that he had brought back from near oblivion in the same way that others like John Bunker had: he talked to people, he asked questions, and when he heard about an unidentified apple, he got in his car and checked it out. Although Calhoun is certainly captivated by the stories and memories behind each unique apple, he also sees a more practical reason to preserve apple biodiversity. With global climate change causing rising temperatures, apples adapted to Southern conditions could be planted in the North in order to guarantee a substantial harvest (Raver). This is just one way in which apple preservation can help combat the problems the species currently faces and could ultimately face in the future.
While it is difficult to argue that the work these apple detectives are doing is bad, there are many who would dismiss it as unimportant because of the inability of heirloom apples to support the commercial apple industry on their own. Scholars Susan Brown and Kevin Maloney, for instance, in their chapter “Genetic Improvement of Apple” in the book Apples: Botany, Production, and Uses, claim that the backbones of the commercial apple industry are the hybrid bred and genetically modified apples that have been developed to embody certain desired characteristics. Advances in gene technology have given biologists a whole new level of control over the apples that are grown for supermarkets, and, as Brown and Maloney contend, “These advances will allow us to manipulate genes affecting quality, disease resistance, and plant architecture” (Brown 52). In other words, Brown and Maloney believe that because of the host of threats faced by the apple industry, genetic breeding and the subsequent development of a few superior apple varieties to plant throughout commercial orchards is a necessary and desirable practice. Therefore, according to these two researchers, the repopulation of heirloom varieties by apple detectives is relatively unimportant, as these apples lack the characteristics they feel are required in order for apples to be grown on a commercial scale. What’s more, they believe biodiversity is not necessary because genetic breeding enables biologists to make apples with whichever traits they want (Brown).
This view is shared by many in the commercial apple industry, and this ideology was crucial in switching the industry to the limited production model it is today. It is true their methods have worked. We now have apples that can withstand rough transportation conditions so that Texans can eat apples grown in Washington; there are apples that can be stored for months on end, enabling bakers to make apple pie even in the middle of June; and who knows how many apples have been spared from disease due to the innovations in genetic breeding. Not only have the apples grown for the commercial market been made better suited to mass production, but traditional heirloom varieties cannot compete. According to Carol Goland and Sarah Bauer, who wrote about apples in local food systems, “many of the old apple varieties cannot participate in the conventional market system because they do not meet its standards of appearance, they bruise too easily and they are unable to withstand the transport and storage demands” (Goland 7). In other words, according to this argument, heirloom apples are great, and it is fun to say some of their names, but saving them is relatively pointless because they cannot be grown on a large enough scale to accommodate the demands of a nation that expects an abundance of apples year-round.
There is certainly some truth to this argument. In the past century, the apple industry has expanded so much that in many ways, breeding and the production of only a select number of apple varieties are necessary to ensure enough successful crop yields to support the public’s demand for this fruit. However, the losses to the species that have come as a result of these practices should be taken into consideration as well. Apple biodiversity has declined dramatically, putting many of the nation’s apple crops at risk. With so many genetically identical apples being grown, a pest or blight could devastate crops before any new varieties could be bred to counteract these threats. What’s more, the loss of defense mechanisms via breeding has led to an increased use in pesticides in apple crops, exposing the public to potentially damaging health effects.
It is not simply biological losses that are affecting apples, either. With heirloom varieties constantly disappearing, many people’s personal stories and relationships are being lost as well, as apple detectives like John Bunker have so passionately articulated. The cultural heritage of the apple, a fruit whose diversity and productivity in America was once unmatched, has, as reporter Adrian Higgins reminds us, “defined the regions that spawned [it] and brought successive generations emotional as well as physical sustenance” (Higgins). What he is trying to say is that heirloom apples, beyond their practical importance, have held meaning as a form of cultural representation for people for centuries. Ultimately, without apple detectives to preserve these trees, they will be lost forever, taking with them a form of history and quality unmatched by the ubiquitous Red Delicious. Therefore, despite the agricultural benefits provided by genetic breeding and selection in commercial apple crops, heirloom apples are also incredibly important and should be preserved as much as possible (Nazarea). Furthermore, in response to claims regarding the inability of heirloom apples to support the commercial apple industry, it is useful to note that these apples do not have to replace commercial crops; rather, they can be a supplement. Smaller local orchards can invest the necessary time and care into the successful growth of heirloom apples. Then, the apples can be sold in nearby areas so transportation or storage durability is not a problem. This approach finds other support from local food advocates, but a full exploration is beyond the scope of this paper.
In reaching a conclusion regarding the importance of apple detectives’ work, we must again revisit a bit of the apple species’ history. After being brought to America by European settlers, the fruit adapted to its new conditions and its genetic diversity exploded, spreading throughout the country. Apples became so popular, in fact, that a new emphasis was placed on their commercial value, and as a result, only a handful of the thousands of available apple varieties were grown commercially. The biodiversity of the species plummeted, and many popular heirloom apples all but disappeared. These effects have been damaging both culturally and biologically and could continue to pose problems in the near and distant future. It is for these reasons that the work of apple detectives to save apple varieties that would previously have been lost is so vital; without these men and women, the apples’ genetic code would be lost forever, and biodiversity would continue to decline. Instead, however, apple detectives have been able to reintroduce unique traits and characteristics of individual heirloom apples that have been naturally developed for thousands of years back to the apple species, preserving both a biological and a cultural legacy. Ultimately, apple detectives’ work is a key factor in the maintenance of the apple species, and as such should be both recognized as valid and given more public support in the future.
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