There is an old apple tree that resides in the back eastern quadrant of my yard. It has been many years since it’s seen any type of attention and the tree has grown wild and out of control. As with most unpruned trees the majority of the crop is at the top, far out of reach. The winds of September have already shaken a sizeable amount of apples out and the lawn is strewn with the windfall. The delicate scent of apple blooms sweetly in the air as the crop reddens and then fades into the soil. The aroma is accompanied by the low hum of wasps and flies as they treat themselves to the banquet laid out in the grass.
Apples are one of the oldest known cultivated crops. Apples and the process of cultivating them have changed over the centuries but the basics are still the same. The biggest changes have come in order to maintain specific varieties of apples like Macintoshes, Granny Smiths and Pippins. A line of logic indicates that if you plant a seed, feed and water the plant with a little time and a little pruning the tree will bear fruit. That is true but not true enough for the commercial apple industry.
As a member of the rose family apples must be pollinated in order to bear fruit. That’s where insects like bees come into the picture. As they move from plant to plant and tree to tree they gather pollen up and leave a little behind. There in lies the trouble. If that small bit of pollen left behind comes from somewhere other than the exact kind of tree it ends up in, it can alter the fruit of the tree. The apple is still a Pippin or a Macintosh but the seed may not be true. Farmers have used this method in the past to breed healthier, hardier breeds of apples but it’s not a quality that lends itself to producing the identical offspring needed for mass production. As a result grafting has become a popular choice for maintaining a consistent genetic line.
A cutting is taken from an existing tree and grafted onto a sapling. That cutting is then nurtured into a fully productive tree that produces the exact fruit found on the parent tree. The apple industry has chosen to breed apples that look nice and travel well. This is a practice that has reduced the gene pool while creating a safe but bland middle ground in the interest of ease and economics. Little thought has been given to taste, which really is the essence of an apple. Many varieties of apples have been lost, victims of that search for the average safe product. It’s been left to private gardeners to try and preserve both variety and the rich history of the old and/or diverse breeds. Just such a breed may be found in the gnarled tree that rests in the shadows of the hundred year old pines that edge my yard.
I can’t identify the variety of apple. The fruit is misshapen, rustic and marked by insects but the skin is firm and breaks sharply when breached. The flesh, with just a tinge of gold, has a taste that I’ve never experienced before. There’s a pleasant bite to the sweetness that floods the mouth and fills the senses. If you saw these apples in the store you might pass them by attracted instead to the uniform qualities of a mass-produced product.
Most people do get caught up in appearances and forget to look at what’s underneath, the essence so to speak. Diversity and individualism is not a quality encouraged or nurtured in our society. Things that are different are shunned or even feared, being held in little to no regard. The apple in my backyard is not picture perfect but it is still an apple and a delicious one at that. Unfortunately it doesn’t matter that its sun-warmed skin holds a treasure few will ever experience. It doesn’t matter that the aroma that lingers in the air and kisses my skin is a divine breath unimaginable. It only matters that it isn’t pretty and it doesn’t look like its distant cousins.
As a society, we are bombarded by a model of how we should look and act. There is an image and lifestyle of conformity that is constantly portrayed as the penultimate ideal. Our children are institutionalized by an overloaded educational system where creativity or initiative is discouraged in the interest of ease and economics. We are all told that it is important to look good, fit in and toe the line. As a result diversity seems to be rapidly giving way to a society of mass-produced individuals who “look nice and travel well”. Where are our private gardeners? Where are those who are willing to look past the bumps and holes and rust to see the value of originality and distinction? Where are the growers who are willing to put economics and ease aside to honour both tradition and diversity?
In my garden there is a tree that grows apples unlike any others I’ve ever seen. The best are at the top of the tree and procuring them is difficult and just a little dangerous. They aren’t clean or pretty and none much resemble their neighbours on the branch. But if you take a risk and make the effort to have one, I promise, you will not be disappointed.