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Natural Perspectives: Say goodbye to American pie

October 19, 2010|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray

If you were painting a Norman Rockwell portrait of America, you'd probably picture mom and an apple pie wrapped in the Star-Spangled Banner. But America's apples are disappearing.

A century ago, there were an estimated 20 million apple trees growing in the U.S. Today, there are only a quarter of that number, and the number of varieties are greatly diminished.

In the 1800s, about 15,000 different named apple varieties were cultivated on America's farms, orchards and gardens. Today, there are only about 3,500 varieties that are commercially available. Only a handful of those varieties are offered in our local stores.

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Ninety percent of today's commercially available apples are in danger of falling off the produce shelves. The Red Delicious variety makes up 41% of all apples grown commercially. That's too bad, because while the Red Delicious is indeed red and attractive, it isn't the world's best tasting apple. And it makes lousy pies.

As environmentalists, Vic and I promote conservation of species diversity. And that includes diversity in America's crop varieties as well. In these uncertain times of changing climate and wilder, more frequent storms, we need crop diversity more than ever. And it is at just this precise point in history that we are losing diversity in America's heirloom crop varieties.

Apples are unusual in that you can't plant the seed of a particular variety of apple and get a tree that bears that kind of apple. Because of the apple's crazy genetics, today's apple orchards are all grafted with known branch stock (called scions) onto whatever apple rootstock is desired.

But things weren't always that way. In the early 1800s when the Midwest was being settled, the government required that settlers plant 25 fruit trees to "prove" their property. Apples were the fruit of choice, because the free-ranging pigs that belonged to the pioneers didn't particularly care what kind of apple they ate. They consumed whatever fell from the trees.

And so it came to pass that a man of legend and American folklore went through the countryside, selling apple tree seedlings to newly arrived settlers. A family would get off a flatboat on the Ohio River, buy 25 seedling trees from Johnny Appleseed, drive their horses and wagons to their new land, clear it of hardwoods, and plant their orchards. The best eating apples were saved, and the rest were eventually cut down. And that's how America ended up with 15,000 different kinds of apple trees.

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