Author Michael Pollan Talks About the History of the Apple

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Henry David Thoreau wrote, ‘It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man.’ That’s particularly true. The apple’s history in the United States where a passion for sweetness has transformed this simple fruit. In the second part of her conversation with Michael Pollan, author of “The Botany of Desire,” NPR’s Ketzel Levine(ph) explores the apple’s American evolution.

KETZEL LEVINE reporting:

In his rural Connecticut kitchen, under lights by the window, Michael Pollan is growing Malus domestica, the original mother of all apples.

Mr. MICHAEL POLLAN (Author, “The Botany of Desire”): Well, we’re up to about nine leaves. It’s pretty small.

LEVINE: Healthy looking little green plant.

Mr. POLLAN: It’s really healthy. This is a tough little plant. I think it’s going to do fine.

LEVINE: Pollan’s seedling is the offspring of a tree from Kazakhstan, the true geographic home of the apple, an immigrant fruit that traveled the world for a millennium or so before hitching a ride to America. It was carried ashore by intrepid gardeners known as the pilgrims who brought bare root trees of their favorite grafted forms. The fruit was intended to sweeten their lot, which it did, says Michael Pollan, but not right off the boat.

Mr. POLLAN: The apples that they planted from trees, the grafted trees that the colonists brought over, just did really badly. They were not well adapted to the harsh American environment. But then they also planted, you know, the apples that they were eating on the boat. They saved the seed and planted those. And what happens when you plant apples from seed is you get all different kinds of apples. Every single seed in an apple produces a different variety, most of which are useless. However, apples grown from seed are perfectly good for making cider.

LEVINE: The American apple had hit unexpected pay dirt. Its survival was assured. Fermentation would sweeten the colonists’ struggle and enliven the American frontier. Every homestead would have an apple orchard. Many land grants even required them. And those orchards provided entire families, including kids, with a sweet, safe and indispensable drink. Michael Pollan.

Mr. POLLAN: People didn’t go to their frontier without their apple seeds and this is why Johnny Appleseed was such an important figure. You know, when I started researching the apple, I thought he was just a comic book, you know, one of these legends like Paul Bunyan. I really did not know he was a historical figure, but he was. He’s just not as we’re told he was. Johnny Appleseed was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. That’s why he was so popular. That’s why he was welcome in every cabin in Ohio. He was the American Dionysus. He was the guy bringing the booze.

LEVINE: Few humans have obliged the needs of a plant as much as John Chapman or Johnny Appleseed. He was an evolving species’ dream. His zealous attentions flowered across the country and bore a mind-boggling diversity of fruit. Most wild apples were spitters, too tart or mushy to eat. But spurred by appetite, curiosity and a market economy, farmers began to cultivate their most sweetly fruited trees.

Mr. POLLAN: ‘And the names these apples had…’

LEVINE: Writes Michael Pollan in his book, “The Botany of Desire.”

Mr. POLLAN: ‘…the green is a bottle bottle greening(ph), the Sheepnose, the Ox Heart, the Yellow Bellflower, the Black Gilliflower, the Twenty Ounce Pippin. They were the names that puffed with hometown pride, like the Westfield Seek-No-Further, the Hubbardston Nonesuch, the Rhode Island Greening, the Albermarle Pippin, the York Imperial, the Kentucky Red Streak, the Long Stem of Pennsylvania, the Ladies Favorite of Tennessee, the king of Tompkins County, the Peach of Kentucky and the American Nonpareil.’

LEVINE: The true apple without equal didn’t emerge until the early 1890s when a farmer named Jesse Hiatt from Peru, Iowa, spotted what he took for a weed.

Mr. POLLAN: He’d mow it and it would come back and he’d mow it and it would come back. And he said””you know, he was a Quaker and he says, ‘You know, this thing might””maybe there’s a reason behind this tree.’ And he let the thing grow. And it fruited after the 10 years, then he tasted it and he says, ‘This is the best darn apple I’ve ever had,’ and so he entered it in a contest. So Stark Brothers had this contest and the Stark Brothers were very slick operators and they knew how to play the game of new apple variety. And Jesse sent in a couple of his apples to the fair and Mr. Stark was doing the tasting and he came across this and he said, ‘This is the best apple I’ve ever tried. I am going to name it the Delicious.’ The problem was Jesse Hiatt’s entry card had been lost in the excitement, so they couldn’t find him. And they couldn’t find the tree.

And they just waited for the next year and they just all prayed that Jesse Hiatt would send in his apples again. Jesse Hiatt had such conviction about his apple, which he called the Hawkeye, and he sent it in again and they made contact and they gave Jesse Hiatt a few thousand dollars and they brought propagating rights and they put a fence around his tree and they rigged it up with a burglar alarm so no one would steal any cuttings. And Stark Brothers went to town with the Delicious and it went on to become the most popular apple in America.

LEVINE: The desire for sweetness that propelled the great apple rush has long been satiated. American orchards now grow only a handful of varieties. It’s a dubious turn of events for the apple, which has survived by evolution, a neat trick, says Michael Pollan, we no longer allow it to do.

Mr. POLLAN: If you plant all genetically identical Delicious apples and they are genetically identical, they’re supremely vulnerable to pests and that is why apples are the crop that receives the most pesticide. In a cider orchard, where you have so many different genes and different combinations, there is””you know, certain ones are bound to be resistant to this disease or that disease and we’ve lost that diversity and that really hurts the apple. So, yeah…

LEVINE: So our insistence on the Delicious could also mean the end of the Delicious.

Mr. POLLAN: Exactly. Exactly. I mean, from an evolutionary point of view, it’s kind of interesting ’cause it looks like it’s great for the Delicious to have its numbers increased. But there’s a real Achilles heel of””that kind of evolutionary success is built on such a slender genetic base that it’s very vulnerable and it will topple sooner or later.

LEVINE: Back in a rural Connecticut kitchen, under lights by the window, a wild seedling from Kazakhstan is ready to outgrow its pot. It’s the original wild apple whose genetically diverse seeds hold not just the history but perhaps the future of an illustrious American fruit. For NPR News, I’m Ketzel Levine.

EDWARDS: There’s more about plants on Ketzel’s Web site, This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I’m Bob Edwards.

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