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Apple’s history reveals a juicy past

As American as apple pie? Consider this: There were no apples for those first to arrive on the shores of the New World. European settlers brought them over. And almost everything you thought you knew about Johnny Appleseed is myth.

The story of the apple is multi-faceted. Who better to sort it out and tell the tale than apple expert and the author of “America’s Apple,” Russell Steven Powell. The author recently held book signings in the area accompanied by fellow apple aficionado and Cheshire native Bar Lois Weeks, who is also the photographer for his book.

“I’m still fascinated by this fruit,” said Powell, who has worked for the New England Apple Association for more than a decade and whose grandparents grew apples in Massachusetts.

Powell explained that early day settlers to America brought apple scions (branches) used to cultivate the fruit. “You cannot grow a true variety from seed—you can’t plant a Macintosh seed and get a Mactintosh,” he said. It just doesn’t work like that. “You need a second variety,” Powell said. And that “means we keep getting new varieties to this day, and some are just found in the wild.”

In the true wild, the primordial apple forests of Kazakhstan, that’s where apple trees are as tall as oaks, and still stand to this day. At one time, America’s apple trees would also have been much taller than what we see in our modern orchards. Technology has advanced to allow for smaller dwarf trees, intensive planting and bigger yields.

Along with its history, Powell’s apple talk included the pomology of the fruit, the marketing angle, and information on farmers who own and tend the orchards.

Several apple-breeding programs are underway around the world, including one at Cornell University, and “they are working feverishly to develop the next super apple,” Powell said. If for instance, they develop an apple such as the newer honeycrisp, that has a distinctive taste, “it can be profitable for years.”

The chase for something new and better might also be the reason why so many apples have not continued in popularity. Powell called the apples for the evening’s presentation “the elite of the heirlooms.” They have survived centuries, and may only be grown by a few orchards in New England, he said. “But they have some quality or qualities that make them exceptional to this day.”

Here are some heirloom varieties: The Hartford sweeting was developed in Connecticut and was popular at one point. Sheep’s nose or black gillyflower is from the 1700s. The appearance is unusual and inviting, but it’s not a good apple to eat; it’s dry. A better use is for applesauce or decorative use.

Northern spy was discovered in Connecticut, but New York State claims it as its own. It’s an excellent pie apple. It’s a good-sized apple and it has an excellent taste. This apple takes up to ten years before it bears fruit, and that might be a reason why we do not see it as much.

Cox’s orange pippin is a remarkable apple, orange with stripes, that’s regaled for its flavor. This type is popular in England and there is a website about it. Fans compare it to a fine wine for its complex taste.

Roxbury russet dates to 1635 from Roxbury, Mass. It looks funny with its rough skin. It excels for use in cider and makes for great eating. Macintosh is New England’s most popular apple. It was discovered in 1801 in Canada. Macs need the cold winters of New England so it cannot grow in the south or west.

Powell considers the apple an heirloom. It has great fragrance and flavor. It is the sixth most popular apple in the country.

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