Where have all the apples gone?

Not so much in later years, but in my early farming days there'd be a spring flurry of apple grafting. The apple varieties of my great-grandfather's first orchard, dating from the late 1700s, were aged but still able to produce new wood for grafting, and we liked to continue with the good ones. Also, folks would come to ask for scions we had and they didn't. All, I imagine, were varieties unknown today. May I repeat something I've told you before?

The pish-tosh story about how Johnny "Appleseed" Chapman broadcast apple seeds and started Midwest orchards is naught but fractured history. Apples are propagated by grafting, and the odds are millions to one against any apple seed's sprouting into a useful variety.

After Mr. Chapman's random apple whips were hip-high, somebody had to graft on some scion or other that would grow an apple fit to eat. The fact is that in pioneer days, there were grafting men who came around in the springtime with pouches of scions that they would set and guarantee for so much a set.

Otherwise, apple varieties spread the way we did it. We grafted our own and hunted for the scions desired. We had a winter sweet apple my great-grandfather snitched from the King orchard when Gov. William King wasn't looking. My grammy used to core and pare them, quarter them, and bake them in a beanpot with maple syrup and spices. We took them to the woodlot on sharp firewood days.

Over many years, the King Sweet had been set in orchards all over the state, and was known as the Gould Sweet. Governor King was forgotten. Nobody knew where he swiped it. It's possible the apple is still bearing, but I don't know. So many of the really good apple trees of Colonial days were allowed to blow down and be forgotten!

The grafting of apple woods is not difficult. The easiest way is to split a living branch, insert the scion into the split, and cover the joint with grafting wax so the wound won't leak sap and the weather is kept out. Nature does the rest.

Grafting wax can be had in garden stores, but we kept bees and used beeswax. Lacking good wax in early times, the settlers innovated and used green cow manure, which worked well. There are other ways to graft, such as bud-grafting and root-grafting, but my way is the one used when Appleseed Johnny's seedlings were big enough to graft to useful apples.

In nature, apple blossoms are fertilized by bees or the wind. The bees keep no records, and the wind is unreliable. But under controlled conditions, a Burbank can take two blossoms from two different trees, and predict to some extent what will result. He can cross-pollinate from A to B, and he can also cross-pollinate from B to A, producing two different apples.

The McIntosh came about in nature and was found in an Ontario fence corner, an utter happenstance. It was propagated by grafting and became a nursery favorite. A man named McIntosh had much to do with this. Then plant experts crossed A and B with McIntosh to see what would result, and the B in this case was a Ben Davis, an old-time favorite red apple that kept all winter and stood up in shipment.

But when the experts crossed B with A, they got another good apple they called a Macoun. If somebody can tell this better than I, we'd like to hear from him. Meantime, this tells the apple story well enough to straighten out the Johnny Appleseed myth.

Saving crabapple seeds, my grandfather would plant a handful in a flat of garden soil and leave the box to sprout in a propitious spot. (Crabapple is good grafting wood.) In a short time the seeds would sprout and need a haircut, so to speak. He would then transplant the seedlings into his flower garden and leave them there to grow into whips. This would take a couple of years, maybe more. He'd transplant them again into a field, spacing them in permanent rows, as for an orchard.

There was no hurry after that, for they could be grafted to true varieties spring after spring as he desired. Some would bear fruit in a few years, and some, such as the Northern Spy, wouldn't yield for 15 years or so.

Such were Grampy's orchards that I came to own. I can't remember all the different apples we picked, from yellow transparents in July to the Spies just before snowfall. At least one barrel of each "keeper" went down cellar for winter use. We didn't have Delicious or Granny Smith, but we had Baldwins, King Tomkins, Nodheads, and I believe there were more than 300 types of commercial apples grown in Maine at that time, any of which we may have had.

There was one apple called a Fallawater that would keep year-round, but was not an apple to eat of a winter evening. It was a green apple and stayed green down cellar into the following September, when it was almost time to pick the next crop. In a pie it was all right, but it needed spicing-up. They were handsome, but I don't recall that anybody ever bit into one.

Grampy used to take a big plate of Fallawaters to the fair each fall, and he always got a blue ribbon for the best apples. It was his little joke that he used the same apples year after year. Grammy made a double-bed quilt with Fallawater blue ribbons – the same prize for the same 10 apples every year, the best keepers we had.

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