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The American Apple Heritage

For Centuries, apples have been the delight of many and have been grown in virtually all countries with a temperate climate. The apple has been revered, written about affectionately, and in some cases even scorned. In Greek and Roman mythology the apple was a symbol of both mortality and fertility. The Greeks and Romans prized the apple to the point of considering it a luxury. The apple tree was referred to as “the bearer of splendid fruit.” The Plutocrats described the apple as being the combination of the best qualities of all fruit; smooth to touch, sweet to taste, and pleasing to the eye and nose.

Ancient Origins
Horticulturists, biologists and naturalists have debated the origin of the apple as coming from either southwest Asia, in the Caucasus Mountains, or south-central Asia, on the slopes of the enormous mountain range that separates China, Kazakhstan and Krygystan. Russian scientists and a team of horticulturists from Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) is studying the genetic makeup of apples. Thus far their trek has led them to identify the lower slopes of the Tian Shan as a possible location of the original apple. This area to the northeast of Alma-Ata is called the Dzungarian Alps and is referred to as the “original wild apple forest”. Within this wild forest, many varieties of apples have grown disease free for centuries.

The Apple in Colonial America
Apples, as the Europeans knew them, were not native to America. Explorers, Jesuits and Franciscan missionaries, and early European settlers brought seeds and occasionally small trees with them to plant orchards around their new homes. Like the European, pioneers traveling west from New England carried with them their prized possessions to start a new life. Among those possessions were undoubtedly apple seeds and apple scions or trees. It is believed that John Endicott, and early governor of Massachusetts, brought the first apple tree to Massachusetts in the early 1600s.

Although apples were grown in Europe and other parts of the world, the fruition of the apple came when it arrived in North America. The warm summers and cold winters in America have helped perfect the fruit unlike anywhere else in the world. Many new varieties were worthy of naming and are still grown today; others were only suitable for feeding to farm animals. The better ones were eventually grafted and carried west by frontiersmen. John Chapman, known as Johnny Appleseed was a contributor to the propagation of apples in the mid west. By the time the north pacific was settled, hundreds of apple varieties were being propagated in the northeast.

Cultivation and use
The first orchard in Massachusetts was planted around 1625 by a clergyman named William Blaxton who owned a farm on Beacon Hill in Boston. He later moved to Pawtucket, Rhode Island and planted the first Rhode Island orchard in 1635. Blaxton is credited for having grown the first named apple in America. Apples are frequently named after the owner or location of origin. Blaxton named his apple Blaxton’s Yellow Sweeting but it was latter referred to as Sweet Rhode Island Greening. Unlike today, these early orchards were planted with imported seeds rather than grafted trees.

Apples became an important element in colonial life, more so than in England. In the primitive colonial American farmhouse, apples were a primary staple of the family diet. Apples would be served as part of a main course, at breakfast, lunch or dinner. During winter months, many households relied heavily on apples for sustenance.

Storing apples
Apples could be stored longer than other fruits, some for more than six months. Fruit was stored in a Dutch cellar where it never froze under ground. The cellar was constructed at the foot of a rising ground, about 18 feet long and six feet wide. It was walled up about seven feet from the ground and had a strong sod covered roof. The door always faced the south. They buried the apples in fine white sand or covered them with straw on the cellar floor. Another method was to pack the fruit in barrels with a little straw between each layer of fruit.

The History of Apple Pie
The origin of most customs and foods in America can be traced to Europe. The same is true of American Apple Pie. Not to upset the founding fathers, but apple pie, is not really American at all. Fourteenth century English often enjoyed meat pies. Fruits such as apples were substituted in traditional meat pies and served as dessert. Apple pie was a favorite dessert during the reign of Elizabeth I. During the mid 1600s, Oliver Cromwell banned many pleasures throughout the Commonwealth, including pie. Fortunately under the reign of King Charles II in 1660 England enjoyed a more pleasant lifestyle, as the King allowed them many pleasures previously denied by Cromwell, among them pie. Although the old style English cuisine is hardly considered gourmet, we are grateful that the colonials passed on the English “American” apple pie, and we are thankful for the thousands of bakers who have helped perfect the apple pie throughout time.

In Colonial times the taste of a dish was emphasized more than appearance and presentation. Pies were often baked with a “take-off crust”. The process allowed sugar and spices to be added after the apples had baked in the bottom pastry shell. Sliced apples were arranged in a pastry-lined pie pan. The pie was baked with the top crust loosely placed on top, but not sealed to the under crust. When the pie was done, the top crust was gently lifted off, sugar and spices were added and the top crust replaced before serving. Sometimes the top crust was baked separately from the bottom crust and assembled after both parts were completely cooled.

Russian Genetics The genetic make up of apples trees is an intense area of scientific study, especially at Cornell. Seeds from the mountains of southern Russia are being grown in the hopes of finding varieties that will be as disease resistant as in their native habitat.

Transporting and Grafting

Prior to colonization of America, Europeans had produced numerous varieties of apples and grafting methods were commonly used to propagate known types. Transportation of trees from Europe was difficult due to the lack of available space on aboard ships as well as fresh water. Although many settlers came with grafting experience, the techniques were not commonly practiced until the middle of the 1700s.

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