CHICAGO — For 60 years, John Myma could not forget the taste. He dreamed of the sweet and tart flavor of Cornelian cherries that he had known in the Crimean Peninsula.
That's one of the reasons Mr. Myma became a member of the Midwest Fruit Explorers - one of the many groups concerned with growing unusual and hard-to-find fruits.
Originally Myma planted Cornelian cherry seedlings ordered from a West Coast nursery in his Skokie, Ill., backyard. The trees yielded smaller, blander, and less memorable fruit than the spectacular fruit he had savored.
After years of trial and error, he read about a priest in Pittsburgh who'd successfully harvested the cherries from trees he planted from seeds that originated in Ukraine. Myma contacted the priest, who sent him several twigs the following spring.
Myma grafted the precious twigs onto his disappointing Cornelian trees. Two years later he finally tasted the cherries he had so long remembered.
The 200-member Midwest Fruit Explorers group is part of the National Fruit Explorers' network. To these gardeners, twigs are never simply twigs. Thousands of fruit varieties can be bought as ready-to-plant seedlings like the ones Myma bought. But most Fruit Explorers would rather do it themselves. They prefer to get these twigs, called scion wood, and graft them onto a sturdy tree or other rooted plant.
In the backyard of Oriana Krusewski, one of Myma's fellow Midwest Fruit Explorers, one Kieffer pear tree stands with 20 pear varieties dangling from its branches. Like Myma, Ms. Krusewski planted the Kieffer only to learn it would take 12 years to yield and would produce fruit more suited to canning than to eating. So she grafted another pear variety to the tree. It took. A year later she repeated her backyard experiment. She now has 70 other trees on her 50-foot lot.
Autumn is a good time to start a backyard orchard of rare and ancient fruit.
No matter where you live, you're bound to be near a group like Chicago's Midwest Fruit Explorers (known as MidFex for short). In Springfield, Ill., there is the Fruit Dabblers, in Strasburg, Pa., the Backyard Fruit Growers, and near Seattle is the Western Cascade Fruit Society.
Fruit Explorers' passion for eating and cooking with fruit is easily seen. Their local newsletters tend to be dotted with recipes using one favorite fruit or another. For the $10 annual membership that most of these groups charge, the quarterly newsletters provide a wealth of information.
Fruit Explorers are downright boisterous about preserving the diversity of ancient and rare fruit varieties offered by nature but rarely seen at market.
Their backyard orchards host antiquities and rarities from some 10,000 apple varieties alone - including Esopus Spitzenburg (an apple that Thomas Jefferson once grew), Knobbed Russet, Freyberg, and Sweet Sixteen.
Fruits grown in these backyard orchards tend to reflect the area's history, to some extent retracing the footsteps of Old World pioneers who first settled the country. Some Fruit Dabblers say they grow ancient apples that were the first ever grown in Illinois - the types known as Pewaukee and Rawls Janet.
Don Zigler, president of Pennsylvania's Backyard Fruit Growers, says his group keeps 600 varieties in their wood bank. His favorites are Cox's Orange Pippin, Newtown Spitzenburg, Calville Blanc d'Hiver - a French apple that Mr. Zigler says is one of the oldest tart apples grown in America. He also likes the Kandil Sinap, a long, thin Turkish apple with a thin skin that looks like porcelain.
Western Cascade Fruit Society 1998 Fall Fruit Show
Tukwila Community Center 12424 42nd S.
Adults $3, children under 16 free
Midwest Fruit Explorers
Chicago Botanic Garden
1000 Lake Cook Road
Lincoln Land Community College
5250 Shepherd Road
100 apple varieties sold by Fruit Dabblers throughout the fall
1716 Apples Road
Backyard Fruit Growers
White Oak Nursery
494 White Oak Road
Members only. Membership may be purchased at the door.
Limited to 120 guests who pre-register.
Call (804) 984-9836