Apple Country

September 1, 2002 by Steve Pitt

From top: Beautiful apples sparkle under the sun in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley; Apple grower G.T. Turnbull examines his harvest at Goderich, Ont., in 1900.

Canada grows more than 30 million bushels of apples a year. Some of the most famous varieties in the world have been developed in this country. We bake them, broil them, squeeze them into juice, cider and sauce or just eat them raw. Those we don’t eat, we ship to places as far away as Finland, Hong Kong, Bangladesh and Australia. Unlike most other agricultural crops in Canada, production has grown nearly every year in the past decade. There is no doubt about it, Canadians love “Them Apples”.

The apple is one of the oldest foods known to humanity. Hoards of carbonized apples have been found in prehistoric campsites from Europe to Asia. Apples appear as magical fruit in Greek, Norse and Chinese mythology. They also appear in holy scripture. For those who think that apples have a bad rep because it brought the downfall of Adam and Eve, check the Bible. There is no mention of the word apple in Genesis. Biblical scholars have suggested the forbidden fruit was actually a pomegranate, fig or lemon. When mentioned in the Bible, apples were used as a metaphor for goodness and worth: “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons” (Song of Solomon 2:3). The Muslims also cultivated apples. According to Islamic legend, the last breath of the prophet Mohammed was sweetened with the perfume of an apple brought to him by an angel.

Apples are members of the Rosaceae family which also includes roses, pears, plums, strawberries and raspberries. The ancestor of all modern apples are crabapples. The word crab, incidentally, is likely derived from the Scandinavian word skrabba, which means wild.

The actual definition of a crabapple tree is a plant whose fruit is smaller than five centimetres in diameter. Edibility is irrelevant–some crabapples bear fruit that is as tender and tasty as any modern domestic tree, they are just small.

There are nearly 8,000 named varieties of apple today but all descended from Malus domestica, a hybrid from the Caucus region that resulted from a cross between Asian and European crabapple species. Some scientists speculate that Malus domestica was an early attempt by Stone Age humans at horticulture. Others believe it was simply the consequence of the apple’s unique breeding style. With very few exceptions, apple trees cannot self pollinate. To produce fertile seeds, each tree needs pollen from another variety of apple. This encourages a genetic crapshoot every time an apple blossom is pollinated. Very often, the resulting offspring bears little or no resemblance to the parent trees. Depending on how many different apple varieties are in the area, the seeds from one single tree are capable of producing dozens–and theoretically thousands–of different new apple varieties.

Humans found out very early that the only reliable way to multiply a popular tree variety was to cut branches off a “good” tree and splice them onto the trunk of a sturdy crabapple. Theophrastus, a disciple of Aristotle, described this technique now known as grafting in his writings in the 3rd century BC. The knowledge slowly spread across the Mediterranean. Four centuries later Roman historian Pliny the Elder mentions 37 different varieties of cultivated apples in his book Historia Naturalis. Domestic apples followed the conquering Roman army into northern Europe where the Gauls, Goths and Celts were already using local crabapples for food and cider.

When Europeans first crossed the Atlantic to North America, they brought apple seeds because saplings were impractical on an ocean voyage that could last months. True to form, the resulting apples reverted to their crab ancestry and readily cross pollinated with the local North American crabapples. Scientists have identified seven species native to North America, three of them specific to Canada. They were likely brought here by the ancestors of the First Nations people who crossed over from Siberia during the last great Ice Age.

The Americans like to believe that the first domesticated apples came to North America in 1629 when the Governor of the colony of Massachusetts Bay imported apple saplings from Great Britain. There is strong evidence, however, that the French living in what is now Nova Scotia had established orchards in North America some 20 years earlier. With considerable optimism, the French planted fruit trees of all kinds, including oranges and lemons. But only the apples survived.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, apples became an essential crop to both French and English colonists. Nearly every farm had a small orchard composed of domestic and semi-wild apples. Farmers discovered that apples would keep over the winter months if they were buried in barrels underground. Apples not fit to eat were fed to pigs or pressed into cider. Cider was the preferred beverage on a farm because local water sources were often contaminated by livestock manure.

Unfortunately, much of the Roman knowledge of grafting and cultivating had been lost during the Dark Ages. Except in isolated pockets–usually around monasteries–most European farmers had forgotten how to graft and depended on luck to find edible apples. This ignorance was brought across the Atlantic where European colonists planted seeds and saplings indiscriminately. John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, won fame by scattering apple seeds across the United States. Although the story sounds good, in reality Chapman left a swath of crab apples and “spitters”–apples so sour they were only fit for livestock fodder. Many of the great North American apple varieties known today were not deliberately cultivated but “discovered” in wild orchards.

Such is the case of John McIntosh, a Scot who emigrated to Upper Canada–now Ontario–in 1796 and settled in Dundas County. Around 1811, he found an overgrown orchard on his property and transplanted all the healthy seedlings he could find. Out of 20 trees, only one survived but its apples were so popular with his neighbours, McIntosh became a local celebrity. McIntosh’s early attempts to graft his tree failed until a travelling peddler passed by in 1835 and showed him the proper technique. There are now more than 3,000,000 McIntosh apple trees in North America today–all of them are grafts descended from that original tree.

Another great Canadian apple was the Snow. Originating out of Quebec, it is thought to be a variety of the popular Fameuse apple from France. Tasty to eat and a good winter keeper, the Americans began importing Quebec Snow apples as early as 1739.

Although able to flourish in cold climates, apples hit a barrier as soon as pioneers attempted to take them to Western Canada. Even the hardiest crabapple variants struggled to survive the extremely cold winters and dry summers of the prairies and as a result, domestic apples were an expensive imported delicacy in the West until cheap rail transport became a reality in the 20th century.

The case was the opposite on the West Coast where winter temperatures and rainfall were much higher. Apple trees require a dormancy period of at least 1,000 hours a year. This is brought on by sub-zero temperatures of winter. Many western coastal regions were too warm and wet for the apple but by the early part of the 19th century, colonists found that apple trees grew well in protected mountain valleys where both the temperature and the rainfall remained moderate. Once steam-powered water pumps made irrigation possible in the arid Okanagan-Similkameen valleys, this region became one of Canada’s most important fruit crop producers. Lord Aberdeen, Governor General of Canada from 1893-98, even owned a 400-acre fruit farm in the Okanagan which at the time was the largest apple orchard in Canada.

As grafting became widespread knowledge, the 19th century farmer was suddenly faced with a bewildering choice of varieties. The Ontario Heritage Orchard near St. Catharines, Ont., has just a fraction of the more than 1,000 varieties that were commercially available up until the mid-1940s. Some of the Victorian varieties sport romantic or mouth-watering names like Emperor Alexander, Blue Pearmain, Bottle Greening, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Cranberry Pippin, Golden Russet, Irish Peach, Maiden Blush and Sweet Bough.

Sadly, the modern consumer has access to a tiny fraction of what was once readily available. Just over two dozen varieties of apple are grown commercially in Canada today and six varieties dominate the marketplace. The McIntosh represents 40 per cent of Canada’s total crop, followed by the Red Delicious at 17 per cent, the Spartan at seven per cent while the Cortland, Empire and Idared each have a market share of four per cent.

So why has the consumer choice shrunk so drastically over the last century? Dramatic changes in the way apples are grown, transported and marketed have made the difference. At one time, most Canadians grew their own apples or bought the surplus from local farmers. Consumers accepted that apples were seasonal and judged the fruit by its taste. Today, mass marketing has convinced consumers to expect large, cosmetically perfect apples all year round. This has led farmers to abandon varieties that are small, unspectacular in appearance, bruise easily or do not keep well in refrigerated storage.

As the population shifted from rural to urban centres during the 20th century, most consumers forgot what a fresh apple tasted like. The Canadian government also led the way in experimenting with long-term storage. Most people are not aware that apples continue to live after picking. They need oxygen to continue to ripen. Canadian scientists found that if apples are sealed in a cold, low oxygen environment, the ripening process is slowed dramatically. Today, under the right conditions apples can survive up to 12 months in special cold storage vaults where the oxygen is reduced to less than one per cent. In other words, instead of getting tree ripened apples, most apples found in supermarkets have been “ripening” in a cold box for months.

But there is good news. Canadians are beginning to rebel against the sameness of bland apples. They are demanding variety and some farmers are trying to give it to them. Doug and Leslie Balsillie of Harrow, Ont., are typical of a new breed of apple farmers who are finding a ready market for new cultivars. Most of their 27 acres of apples are devoted to producing mainstream cultivars like Empire, Gala, Red & Golden Delicious and Idared but they also have a small test orchard located near their roadside fruit stand to catch their customer’s eyes when they stop to buy apples. Some of the varieties are so new, they do not even have names yet. “Many consumers know only a few apples,” Leslie says “so we ask them what they prefer. If they eat Delicious, they have a sweet taste, so we let them sample new sweet varieties. If they like tart apples like Idared, we would direct them to Braeburn. And sometimes they like hard fruit, so many of the new ones are very firm. Often, it’s the kids who are most willing to try new kinds.”

After that, Leslie says their main problem is short supply. “We only have a handful of trees of each (new) variety so supplies are short. When they return we have to tell them to wait until next year.”

To avoid disappointment, the Balsillies have a Web site to keep their customers updated. It is www.mnsi.net/~dbalsill/index.html. The Balsillies are not alone, hundreds of Canadian orchards are now online. So give yourself a treat. Take a drive this fall to a pick-your-own orchard and ask “What’s new?” from one of the world’s oldest temptations

How To Pick An Apple

The Nova Scotia Fruit Growers’ Association suggests the following:

a) Apples should be cradled lightly between the palm and fingers with the thumb or forefinger against the base of the stem.

b) The apple should be removed by a twisting and lifting action, the finger or thumb exerting pressure against the stem.

c) Remember not to break off the spur because it removes the base for next year’s fruit buds. The spur is the tiny part that connects the stem to the tree.

d) An apple without a stem is more likely to become infected.

How To Store Apples

a) If you have just a small number of apples, the best place to store them is in a plastic bag in your refrigerator. However, you should not place them near onions or other fragrant foods because apples easily absorb flavours.

b) If you want to store a lot of apples, the first thing to know is that not all apples keep equally well. Generally speaking, the thicker skinned apples last longer in storage than thin-skinned ones. Red Delicious, Jonathan, Northern Spy, Winesap and Rome Beauties are good keepers. If you are buying from an orchard, ask the farmer for advice.

c) Some apples actually improve in storage. Once again, ask the farmer for advice.

d) The best way to pack apples in bulk is to put them in a large cardboard box–with a lid–lined with newspapers on the bottom. Wrap each apple loosely in a separate sheet of newspaper, but use only black and white print because coloured ink can give off taste and even poison. As you wrap each apple look for cuts, bruises or soft spots. These will make the apple spoil faster and one spoiled apple can ruin the whole box if it is not removed.

e) Apples will store well in any cool, dark place. A garage, unheated porch or basement will do fine as long as the temperature does not go below freezing. Your apples also need some humidity or else they will shrivel prematurely.

f) Finally, do not store your apples next to potatoes because as spuds age, they exhale a harmless gas that makes fruit ripen faster.

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