How About Those Apples

appletreeExcerpts from my October 9th, 2009 column in The Register Star.

Like many, I grew up hearing about the legend of Johnny Apple Seed, the chipper, barefooted man with a cooking pot for a hat, who roved around the county side dispersing apple seeds wherever he went. I pictured beautiful trees dripping with delicious apples growing in his wake. Well, that’s not exactly how it works. Yes, if you plant an apple seed you will get an apple tree but the fruit will not taste like the apple from which it came. In fact, most will hardly be edible. Johnny Apple Seed wasn’t so concerned with growing tasty apples. He was mainly growing apples for hard cider and not for making pie. The “spitters” grown from seeds work fine for cider but usually aren’t anything you’d want to sink your teeth into.

Apple trees need other apple trees to pollinate. The apple from a tree will take on the characteristics of the parent tree. The seeds in the apple will be a cross between the parent tree and the tree that pollinated it. That’s why the fruit from a chance seedling is a wild card. The apple may not fall far from the tree, but the fruit grown from that apple’s seeds isn’t going to be anything like the rest of the family.

From what I gather, there are a few ways to grow a good-tasting apple. You can hope for a good chance seedling. This doesn’t happen much but when it does, you’ve struck gold. Discovered in 1905, the original Golden Delicious apple tree was a chance seedling. A farm boy found the lone tree sapling in a field he was clearing. He worked around the tree and watched it grow for years. To his delight, the tree produced a brand new apple variety and a good one at that. Originally called Mullin’s Yellow Seedling, Stark Brothers Nurseries bought the rights to the tree and they gave it a catchier name, Golden Delicious. Every Golden Delicious apple’s linage can be traced back to this one tree in Clay County, West Virginia.

To grow other Golden Delicious trees you need to basically clone a Golden Delicious tree. This is usually done by taking a shoot (called a scion) from the tree and grafting it onto rootstock. You can also take a clipping and root it.

Modern day apples are usually grafted onto dwarf rootstocks. If you visit an old orchard, you may notice that the trees are considerably taller than newer ones. It’s not because the older tree have grown more, but rather the practice of grafting onto draft rootstock has become an industry standard. The smaller trees make for easier harvesting, though it’s up for debate as to which trees are better for climbing.

This past weekend my husband and I went apple picking. We went to Mr. Apples in High Falls, NY. Mr. Apples is a low-spray orchard. Apples from low-spray orchards are not pretty. Most of the ones we picked were covered with harmless black spots. I’ll trade a little ugly for fewer chemicals any day. I was pleasantly surprised to find that with a little baking soda and water, the black spots came right off and we had nice looking, tasty, natural apples.