John Bunker, and the quest for our lost American apples

Bailey Sweet, color plate from The Apples of New York, Volume 1 (1905).

Mother Jones recently ran a fantastic piece by Rowan Jacobsen. (Thanks for the tip, R!)  Under the headline “Why Your Supermarket Only Sells 5 Kinds of Apples: And one man’s quest to bring hundreds more back,” Jacobsen examines the loss of countless American apple varieties:

In the mid-1800s, there were thousands of unique varieties of apples in the United States, some of the most astounding diversity ever developed in a food crop. Then industrial agriculture crushed that world. The apple industry settled on a handful of varieties to promote worldwide, and the rest were forgotten. They became commercially extinct—but not quite biologically extinct.

Even when abandoned, an apple tree can live more than 200 years, and, like the Giving Tree in Shel Silverstein’s book, it will wait patiently for the boy to return. There is a bent old Black Oxford tree in Hallowell, Maine, that is approximately two centuries old and still gives a crop of midnight-purple apples each fall. In places like northern New England, the Appalachian Mountains, and Johnny Appleseed’s beloved Ohio River Valley—agricultural byways that have escaped the bulldozer—these centenarians hang on, flickering on the edge of existence, their identity often a mystery to the present homeowners. And John Bunker is determined to save as many as he can before they, and he, are gone.

The article is a great read and will inspire you to seek out new apple varieties. Check it out here, along with an accompanying post from editor Sarah Zhang on an amazing pair of books from more than a century ago (and available for free online) titled The Apples of New York.

For more, check out this episode of Wisconsin Foodie that features Brightonwoods Orchard and ÆppelTreow Winery & Distillery of Burlington, Wisconsin.


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