I’ve been thinking a lot recently about apples and want to share a bit about what I know about this wonderful fruit.
A Rose by Any Other Name
Apples are in the same plant family as roses. When you are eating an apple, you are kind of eating a rose hip, only sweeter. Check out an apple flower and you’ll see a wild rose – five petals and a big bunch of stamens. An apple orchard in flower gives off a dusty rose smell. We’re lucky apples don’t have thorns. Other fruits are in the rose family, too: cherries, apricots, plums…
Wild apples are found in their genetic birthplace in southern Kazakhstan in the Tian Shan mountains. Apples were domesticated at least 1500 years ago from the wild species Malus sieversii. Bears and people spread that wild thing around far and wide and then folks started messing with it to make better fruit. The result was a cultivated variety with different species names, such as Malus pumila, Malus sylvestris, Malus communis or Malus domestica. If you don’t have a favorite variety of apple, there are plenty to try. Worldwide, there are 7500 varieties grown. Locally, you can try more than 70 varieties at the annual apple tasting at Wilder Ranch. This year’s tasting is on October 8th and hosted by the Monterey Bay Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers.
Our Region and Apples
Our region is famous for its apple cultivation. Martinelli’s Gold Medal apple cider has its history in Watsonville. There are still around 2,000 acres of apple trees in the Monterey Bay area and almost all of those apples go to Martinelli juice, which is made primarily of the apple variety Newtown Pippin with some Mutsu (aka Crispin) mixed in. With the many juice taste tests I’ve participated in, Newtown Pippin wins easily, but Mutsu is a close second. Martinelli is now offering organic apple juice, reminding me of one of the reasons organic agriculture got its boost.
Organic Foods Movement and Apples
One of the earliest boosts for the organic foods movement was due to apples. The Natural Resources Defense Council published a peer reviewed scientific study demonstrating the carcinogenic danger of Alar, a synthetic spray used on apples and found on apples in the store. The news show 60 Minutes caried this story in 1989 and the public quickly stopped buying apples. Lawsuits followed and Congress passed legislation, and then the organic food movement got a big boost.
It’s not easy to grow any apple for profit but growing organic apples is even more difficult. The labor alone is a wonder. I figure that an organic apple is handled 6 times before you pick one up at the market.
- The first touch: fruit thinning
Touch one: fruit thinning. If the farmer is really good, they only touch the fruit a single time when thinning fruit. There can be up to 6 flowers per cluster, and it is best to thin that cluster to one fruit or there are all sorts of problems. Lack of thinning makes for smaller fruit, not a problem if you want juice but a big problem for sales. If you don’t thin enough, there’s too much weight for the apple branches and branches break. Also, without sufficient thinning the tree makes more seeds using more nutrients that then don’t get invested in the next season’s buds. So, you get a tree that bears every other year: aka alternate bearing.
- Touch two: harvest
Someone has to harvest the fruit from the tree. These apples go into harvest bags that have to get hauled to the sorting table.
- Touch three: the sort
Apples need to get carefully sorted. You make sure that any insect damaged fruit doesn’t go to the store and that the right sizes are in the right boxes.
- Touch four: the boxes go into the truck for delivery
- Touch five: the boxes go off of the truck at delivery
- Touch six: the apples go on display
Many of us believe that the key to success in apple growing is good soil stewardship. Apple trees grow best in close association with soil fungi also known as mycorrhizae. The tastiest fungal associate of apple trees is the famous morel mushroom, but I don’t know anyone who has successfully and purposefully grown morels and apples together…it’s a dream. Mostly, the fungi that collaborate with apples don’t make tasty mushrooms but they can help the apple trees absorb nutrients and water. There is also evidence that apple trees are healthier if they are aided by their fungal associates. I’ve learned lots about apple growing from the author Michael Phillips. He swore that placing piles of hardwood chips made from the fine branches of trees was key to a healthy orchard as fungi love that kind of wood and, in turn, feed the trees.
Growing Apples and our Climate
The native habitat of apples is not at all like California, so we have to think carefully about how we manage apples in our climate. One major issue is that California has a hot, dry summer. Kazakhstan’s mountains have moist summers, so either we irrigate apples or plant trees where their roots reach moisture deep in the soil throughout the summer. Full sized apple trees have roots that reach 20’ down; dwarfing rootstock is smaller. Full sized apple tree also try to reach their natural 40 feet height, so despite the deep roots the height of the tree can be a real problem. Shorter trees and dwarfing rootstock means more thirsty trees.
The other problems with growing apples in our region have to do with heat. Many apple varieties need enough ‘chill hours’ to be healthy; a chill hour is one hour less than 45 degrees while the tree is dormant. We don’t get a lot of those right around here (especially with warming winters) and areas south of us on the coast are nearly impossible to grow many types of apples because of that. The other temperature issue is hot roots. Apples don’t like warm roots- too warm and the trees aren’t as healthy. The answer is to keep the understory watered and mulched.
If you grow an apple tree, you are bound to attract critters. There are always birds wanting to eat the fruit: I get acorn woodpeckers, California scrub jays and Steller’s jays pecking away at fruit. Fallen fruit feed gophers and mice. Gray fox harvest fallen fruit or fruit right from the trees. If you are in town, you might also get opossum, rats, and raccoons doing the same. One of my favorite butterflies raises its young on apple leaves: the California sister. But, there are many other species of butterflies and moths that do the same. Finally, you need to watch an apple tree in blossom to appreciate the number of pollinators that celebrate apple blooming season.
Your Apple Tree
I hope you can appreciate the apple tree a little bit more and maybe you’ll be inspired to help care for one. If you don’t want to grow one yourself, perhaps you can help care for one through many of the community orchard projects happening all over town. At the very least, when you see that apple at the market, now you may appreciate the life that it had before it made it to the sales display table. Each fruit has its own story, but apples have a special place in our local history.
-this post originally published by Bruce Bratton on his extraordinarily useful BrattonOnline.com weekly blog