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Backyard Birder

’Tis the season for apples, wild and tame

  • Apple experts Tom Burford, right, and Ben Watson, center, identify one of the old apples trees at the Harris Center for Meade Cadot, former director of the center. Verdict: a Baldwin, a variety often found near old farmhouses.

    Apple experts Tom Burford, right, and Ben Watson, center, identify one of the old apples trees at the Harris Center for Meade Cadot, former director of the center. Verdict: a Baldwin, a variety often found near old farmhouses.

  • A recent batch of cider the Von Mertens made in jars lined up outside.

    A recent batch of cider the Von Mertens made in jars lined up outside.

  • Apple experts Tom Burford, right, and Ben Watson, center, identify one of the old apples trees at the Harris Center for Meade Cadot, former director of the center. Verdict: a Baldwin, a variety often found near old farmhouses.
  • A recent batch of cider the Von Mertens made in jars lined up outside.

The Harris Center for Conservation Education recently presented a program on apples — real apples, not the bland supermarket versions that are developed for looks, not flavor and character. Tom Burford, a.k.a. “Professor Apple,” was up from Virginia, coinciding with publication of his “Apples of North America,” and Ben Watson from Francestown assisted his good friend. Ben’s “Cider: Hard and Sweet,” third edition, just came out.

Tom and Ben know apples.

Tom said that the 15,000 to 16,000 named apple varieties of 100 years ago have fallen to about 1,500 today, along with the rich apple culture of another era.

European settlers found a few native crabapple varieties only, and soon established orchards from seeds and seedlings brought from Europe.

Apples were raised for cider back then. Tom said that cider “drove the country.” Often safer to drink than water, it also was cheaper than tea or coffee. A good cidermaker could barter hard cider for just about any of life’s essentials.

John Chapman, aka “Johhny Appleseed,” established orchards as settlement spread westward — for cider, not for apple pie.

Prohibition and then soft drinks devastated cider making, along with the disappearance of small farms with their backyard orchards, urbanization and the spread of industrial agriculture.

I’ve read that “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” was a slogan to counter the temperance movement that demonized hard cider. “Motherhood and apple pie” followed.

Apples originally were for cooking, drying, vinegar, wine, pickling, apple butter, cider and feed for livestock. Not pies. People knew which apples were best for each use, and which could be stored through the winter.

After their presentation, including an apple and cider tasting, Tom and Ben agreed to walk the Harris Center grounds to ID the old apple trees. They didn’t need much persuading.

We learned to recognize Baldwins, red-striped on the sunny side with white starlike-flecks. The brownish apples were Roxbury russets, and the greenish apples were Rhode Island greenings.

A bite into the fruit of another tree delivered a crisp, juicy McIntosh experience.

Tom said that an old McIntosh like the ones at the Harris Center should be tended with care because the old Macs have a lot more character than the modern version.

He said apple varieties at the Harris Center were typical of old farmhouses, selected for cider, cooking and storage.

Good storage apples like russets keep through the winter until early apple varieties are available.

The first tree they ID’d was a Baldwin, but they thought a nearby tree was a Baldwin “seedling.” Apple seedlings don’t grow true to the parent tree. Plant five seeds from one tree and you’ll get five different apples. The only way to get a Baldwin is to clone one through grafting a branch, or scionwood, to a rootstalk.

When a tree planted for cider was found to bear fruit with desirable attributes, it was named and a new apple variety established through grafting offspring.

The first McIntosh came from a wild tree that John McIntosh of Ontario, Canada, happened upon 200 years ago. He and his son cut twigs from that tree and grafted them to growing rootstock. Every McIntosh tree today is a cloned descendant of a wild apple tree with pleasing fruit, encountered quite by chance.

Commercial apple varieties today are developed through horticultural practices. Macouns and honeygolds were crossed to create the popular honey crisp — a patented variety that’s illegal for the home orchardist to graft.

As for the home cider maker — and apple forager — Ben Watson says this is the best year for wild and backyard apples since 2007.

Many apple trees are naturally biennial or even triennial, producing abundantly every few years. As I often write, nature works that way. A natural cycle of bust and boom ensures that seeds will survive to produce the next generation. If oak trees produced the same amount of acorns every year, deer and squirrels and wood ducks and all the other wildlife species that eat acorns would stabilize at numbers that would forage every acorn. None would be left to take root and grow into a replacement generation.

Orchardists manipulate fruit trees by pruning branches and thinning blossoms and fruit to create an annual, marketable product.

Periodically, a year like this comes along — often following a number of bust years — when wild or old untended apple trees really, really produce. Those years our family forages avidly and our small cider press gets a lot of action.

Most frequent comments we hear: “That’s the best cider I’ve ever tasted;” “I never knew ciders could be so different.”

Tasting one batch from one tree next to another is a sensory pleasure.

Ben Watson’s “Cider: Sweet and Hard” is a book to inspire the backyard cidermaker. Ben also is an apple grafter, a local Johnny Appleseed in his own right, who works to preserve worthy historic varieties. Too many have been lost.

Primary goal of both Tom and Ben is to spread word — and demand — for character apples, thereby supporting their growers.

Wonderful character apples are available in the area. Tenney’s in Antrim, Nature’s Green Grocer in Peterborough, local farmers’ markets, U-pick orchards, etc.

I recommend a visit to Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole for a taste testing as well as the visual treat of apples in great diversity. I bought some of Alyson’s Cox’s orange pippins at Blueberry Fields in Keene. It’s my current favorite.

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

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