Friday, August 15, 2008

Shopping for Apples

To make a long story short, I went shopping for apples today.

Now, for the long story. Hearing Gary Nabhan talk about about Silas McDowell’s Nickajack apples inspired me to go digging through my files. And here's what I found...

Working from his farm in the Cullasaja valley, Silas McDowell (1795-1879) lived in Macon County (NC) for most of his life and discovered or improved many varieties of apples. Thanks to McDowell, the Cullasaja Valley became a treasure trove of new apple varieties. In 1847, McDowell explained the origin of the Nickajack:

…it is the product of a tree left by the Cherokee Indians when they abandoned the country, and they had no mode of propagating their fruit other than by the seed. I found it when a small tree in an Indian improvement on a branch of the Sugartown [Cullasaja] called the Nick-a-jack creek - hence its name.

In 1855, McDowell listed some of the apple varieties that he had discovered. All except the first four on the list were of Cherokee origin:

Camack's Winter Sweet
Maverick's Winter Sweet
McDowell's Winter Sweet

In 1858, McDowell’s friend and fellow nurseryman, Jarvis Van Buren of Clarkesville, GA, acknowledged that successful apple production in the South was a fairly new trend and credited McDowell for that success:

Many of these [apples] were originated by the Cherokee and Creek Indians, who, it appears, were entirely ignorant of the process of propagating by grafting, but depended upon the sowing of seeds, which were collected in their intercourse with the whites. When the Indians left the country, their lands were occupied by our citizens, and since the enthusiasm for cultivating fruit has become awakened within the past ten years, these desirable varieties have been made public. Amongst our best winter apples are the Equinetely, Tillaquah, or Big Fruit, Chestoa, or Rabbit's Head, Elarkee, and Cullawhee, all of Indian origin — the latter the largest apple known.

Years later, one of McDowell’s neighbors in the Cullasaja Valley advertised even more varieties of trees for sale. This announcement appeared in the July 22, 1881 issue of the Western Reporter:

Cheap Fruit Trees. Mr. W. G. Stanfield, near Franklin, is offering the following very choice variety of apple trees at the remarkably low price of ten cents each. Don't send off for trees when you can get them so cheap at home.
Comanche Winter Sweet
Yellow Pippin
Early Harvest
Red June
Yellow June
Golden Pippin
Great Unknown
Winter Horse
Nansamond Beauty
Johnson's Fine Winter
Golden Russet
Aromatic Cordling
Clark Pearmain
Rhode Island Greening
Red Pippin
Royal Pearmain
Summer Golden Pippin
Winter Queen
Stevenson Fine Winter
Northern Spy
King Russet
Newtown Pippin

However, 33 years later, none of these appeared on a list of apples grown in Jackson County. These varieties were listed in the program for the 1914 Jackson County Fair:

York Imperial
Roman Beauty
Stayman's Wine Sap
Virginia Beauty
Wine Sap
Gano (Black Ben Davis)
Grime's Golden
Mammoth Black Twig
Bryson Seedling
Royal Limbertwig
Delaware Red
Roman Stem
Wolf River

To make a short story long, that’s the background for today's shopping trip to buy apples. Granted, it’s still early in the apple season. In another month or two, I might have more choices than I had this afternoon. I'll probably find more locally-grown apples than I found today. But just for fun, I wanted to see how many apple varieties I could find for sale in Sylva.

What better place to start than Walmart?

They had a half-dozen different apples, with the Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smith coming from Washington state, and the Braeburn, Fuji and Gala shipped from Chile.

Moving on to Ingle’s I found the same roster of apples. The biggest difference from Walmart was that almost all the apples were from Washington state rather than Chile, and some of the apples were labeled organic.

Next, I visited Terry’s Produce Stand. He offered three varieties of early apples, the Cortland, Ginger Gold and Wolf River. Mercifully, none of them had come from as far away as Chile, much less Washington.

For my last foray, I stopped at Harold's Supermarket. From what I could tell, all the apples were grown in the Chilean fruit at Harold's. On the other hand, I didn't see anything labelled organic. Signs above the display listed Winesap and Jonagold apples, but I couldn't find them. Harold's did have a relatively good selection of the usual suspects: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Rome, Braeburn, Mutsu, Fuji and Gala. Additionally, they had three varieties tagged as locally grown: Ginger Gold, Wolf River and Poly Red.

When it comes to apple diversity in the market, that's a start. But who knows? Some good people are working hard to renew America’s food traditions. One day soon, we might reconnect with the rich heritage of apple-growing in our own corner of the mountains, and get our first tastes of the apples named for the places we call home. Walmart can keep their Chilean Fujis and Galas. One day soon, we might find a Nickajack, a Cullasaga, an Alarkee…

…or even the largest of all apples, the Cullawhee.

More Varieties - The Apple Journal has a nice online list with descriptions of dozens of apples.

Scanning the list, I did not see the Poly Red, but I did find Paula Red, and the description fits the apple at Harold's. Some other names from the Apple Journal list caught my eye. Here are a just a few of the more intriguing ones:

Crow Egg
Dixie Red Delight
Douglas Wormless
Hollow Log
Husk Spice
Irish Peach
Mountain Boomer
Peace Garden
Pitmaston Pineapple
Pomme Gris
Rusty Coat
Sops of Wine
Winter Banana

Illustrations -
Top, the painting is from the USDA's National Agricultural Library Pomological Watercolor Collection. This delectable online exhibit includes selections from the 7700 watercolors commissioned by the USDA starting in 1887. Since the use of scientific photography was not widespread in the late 19th Century, the USDA relied on watercolor artists to illustrate newly introduced cultivars.

Photographs, from the Ewart Ball Photographic Collection, D.H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville. These photos are from a 1920 Apple Show. The first photo shows a display table of North Carolina apples. The second shows a display by Holston Orchards, Altapass, NC. The third is of a large Wolf River apple grown by Patton and Gillespie. The marks on these photos indicate they were produced by Plateau Studios in Asheville where the legendary George Masa did much of his photographic work. Several years later, Ewart Ball acquired Plateau, and questions have lingered as to whether or not Masa was properly credited for his work.


Jim Holloway said...

This may be your best one yet.
I am left with a feeling of pride of place and am hopeful that this article will inspire development of local apple economy based upon traditional varities. Please circulate this one.

Duck Hunter said...

Very interesting. Made me curious to see what I can find here in the Upstate (SC).