The apple mystery story gets a little less mysterious

Rare apples

With  apple season in full flower (at least in the U.S. and Canada), we wanted to bring attention to a great story that Mother Jones ran earlier this year. But, first, we wanted to wish all our Canadian brethren a very happy Thanksgiving.

The article, Why Your Supermarket Only Sells 5 Kinds of Apples, profiles a modern-day apple detective. As the article writes, “In the mid-1800s, there were thousands of unique varieties of apples in the United States, some of the most astounding diversity ever developed in a food crop. Then industrial agriculture crushed that world. The apple industry settled on a handful of varieties to promote worldwide, and the rest were forgotten. They became commercially extinct – but not quite biologically extinct.”

John Bunker, a Maine farmer known as the “Apple Whisperer” is on a crusade to find and replant as many of those rare varieties as possible. It’s actually a harder problem than just finding lost seeds. The only way to ensure genetic purity of an apple is by grafting, not by growing from seed. That means Bunker has to find an actual living tree to recreate a lost variety. Luckily, many apple trees can live as long as 200 years. And Bunker‘s been remarkably successful, estimating he’s  saved anywhere from 80 to 100 varieties from oblivion.

It is interesting to note that these lost varieties are quite different from newer varieties in more ways than their historical heritage. As the article says, “ many of the new apples being released, like the SweeTango, are “club apples”  – intellectual property of those who bred them. Growers must sign a contract that specifies how the trees will be grown and where they can be sold, and they must pay annual royalties on every apple.” With heritage apples, the only debt is to the farmers long gone who took care of the trees.

It’s a fascinating article, with much more detail and well worth reading. Certainly it will make you look at the barrels of apples at a farmers’ market with new respect.

Photo by Séan Alonzo Harris

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  • wester  on  October 14, 2013

    That was an enjoyable read. Thanks!

  • ellabee  on  October 14, 2013

    Apples have fascinated me since childhood, and this part of Virginia has a long tradition of them. To anyone interested in the subject, I can't recommend highly enough the new book Apples of North America, distilling a life's work by one of our area's greatest treasures, Tom Burford.

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