Quoddy Nature Notes ~ Apples


Fall is the season of apples, especially here in New England. Conventional wisdom(?) had that apples were not native to North America, but I guess that is not completely true. The apple as we know it, Malus domestica, apparently originated around what is now Kazakhtstan, and Alexander the Great is credited with finding and bringing apples to the western world in 328 BC. However, there is a sneaky problem with apples. If you plant a seed of an apple variety like a ‘Red Delicious’, and carefully raise the plant over a half dozen to a dozen years and expect some Red Delicious apples, you would generally be very disappointed. What you would get is some weird combination of the Red Delicious and whatever pollinated the blossom to produce the apple, and it couldn’t have been a Red Delicious.

The secret procedure necessary was grafting. If you want a Red Delicious you must graft a Red Delicious twig onto a selected root stalk. Surprisingly, this was noted many years ago. Virgil wrote about grafting in 29 BC, and the Chinese botanist Chia-Shi-yi wrote about grafting in the 3rd century AD. The Crusaders probably brought the art of grafting to Europe in the 1200’s, where it became well known in France, but England didn’t adopt the practice until the mid 1500’s.

The apple was brought to North America in the early period of colonization, and the first orchard mentioned was planted in Boston by Rev William Blaxton in Boston in 1625. Whether or not this was a grafted orchard is not reported, but the early orchards were largely the hit or miss type, i.e. raised from seeds.

These were the type of orchards that Johnny Appleseed was responsible for; a marvel of diversity and some of the apples even tasted good, but many were small and sour. However, even the worst apples could be mashed, and the juice made into cider, and the pulp fed to the cows or hogs. The cider could be fermented, and the resulting hard cider, with an alcohol content of less than 10 %, was a welcome relaxant for the backwoods farmer. For special occasions he might make some applejack, and with freeze distillation could get a potent drink of up to 80 proof. The apple could be kept from freezing and stored for long periods in the root cellar, and even then it was valued for its nutrition. Thus the apple was a very important tree, especially here in New England.

Were there wild apples here in pre-Columbian times? There is confusion in the literature, but apparently there were wild crab apples of the genus Malus, that were small, hard and sour. Thoreau wrote of wild apples, but were these native or just seed, as apples had already been introduced long before?

Since apple seeds are tough and pass undamaged through the digestive system of most animals and birds they are easily spread by foxes, deer, bear and raccoons. Porcupines cherish the sweet apples, but apparently do not eat the seeds. Apple seeds contain cyanide, and somehow the ‘pine knows that, and avoids the seeds. An adult person would have to chew up over a cup of apple seeds to do any harm to himself.

My casual search through Native American references yielded no edibility or medicinal qualities of native apples, if there were any. One reference listed the Abenaki word for apple as ‘aplziz’, but my Passamaquoddy REFERENCE BOOK lists apple as ‘Cikon’ and crab apple as ‘cikonesis’. There is so much to learn about apples. There are over 7000 recognized cultivars; many books; ‘Black Oxford’ is Maine’s most famous apple and I didn’t know that my Alma Mater (UMass, Amherst) has an apple orchard with over 100 varieties. So, there is still some mystery, at least for me, about apples. I’ll have to read up about them while munching on an apple, and being careful about not chewing the seeds.


Some of the ‘wild’ apples in the grown up fields in Pembroke. The apple on the right is good tasting, big and pretty resistant to pests. Next spring I’ll graft a few twigs and see how that works out.