Friday, March 25, 2011

The Gala: Britain's Most Popular Apple? Say It Isn't So!

Don't get me wrong; I like Gala apples. Sweet, firm, and juicy; they hold up well in winter storage, too, even until spring when the pickings of apples in the grocery store are starting to look sad. But if given a choice, I'll go for an Empire or a Braeburn, or that once-exotic but now pedestrian Granny Smith.

The most popular apple in the United States has been and still is the Red Delicious, despite the fact that most people have never eaten a decent one. At their prime, this apple has dark, sensual notes of wine and maple to its sugary juice, and can be as firm as any of the crispiest varieties out there. But normally it is mushy, bland and insipid.

Britain's most popular apple for many years has been Cox's Orange Pippin, but this story in the Guardian claims that the top apple is now the sweet Gala. The writer goes on to encourage readers to sample Britain's heirloom varieties, some of which have continued to be sold at greengrocers for years, and some of which are slowly being re-introduced on the wave of love for heirloom apples that is also sweeping the Unites States.

The Guardian has published some terrific articles of interest to apple and orchardist enthusiasts in recent years, like this one on cider apples, or this one that suggests that mistletoe may become scarce as its favorite habitat, the traditional country apple orchard, becomes a thing of the past. This writer praises the English apple and all its variety, and this piece bemoans the British trend of importing most of its apples instead of relying on local abundance.

Nature loves diversity, and, as Michael Pollan describes in fascinating prose in his book The Botany of Desire, apple trees reward human intervention on their behalf with sweeterm more delectable fruit. Let's help them along, shall we?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

How to Prune Old Apple Trees

My friend Joey spent some time today pruning some old apple trees, and found this Youtube video series on pruning overgrown standard apple trees. I've been told one should not do major pruning in spring, but rather in late autumn/early winter when the trees go dormant. But you can trim smaller branches at any time.

I did a lot of pruning this past fall at the Brushwood Folklore Center, and hope this will help the wild apple trees to bear more fruit. Plus to pruning: you have plenty of apple wood for burning, and and it smells great in campfires, or imparts a nice fragrance and flavor to your barbecues! Just add apple wood chips or branches to your charcoal fire to flavor your food.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

March wandering

The weather forecast promised sleet and snow today, but surprise! After a few hours of off and on rain, the day became warm and even sunny. I went for a nice long walk to Washington Park (pictured above in late April of 2008) and enjoyed the burgeoning signs of spring. Plenty of robins and starlings crowded the trees and I saw plenty of daffodil shoots and even some clusters of crocus in bloom!

This poem by Archibald Lampman, one of my favorite poets, sums up the subtle and joyful changes of the season.

In March

The sun falls warm: the southern winds awake:
The air seethes upwards with a steamy shiver:
Each dip of the road is now a crystal lake,
And every rut a little dancing river.
Through great soft clouds that sunder overhead
The deep sky breaks as pearly blue as summer:
Out of a cleft beside the river's bed
Flaps the black crow, the first demure newcomer.

The last seared drifts are eating fast away
With glassy tinkle into glittering laces:
Dogs lie asleep, and little children play
With tops and marbles in the sun-bare places;
And I that stroll with many a thoughtful pause
Almost forget that winter ever was.

~~Archibald Lampman

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Creighton Lee Calhoun: A Master Preserver of Heirloom Apples

This fascinating article from the New York Times today features a man from North Carolina who specializes in grafting heirloom apple trees from some very old and nearly-forgotten Southern varieties.

Mr. Creighton Lee Calhoun, Jr. is 77 years old, and a retired army lieutenant colonel. He also seems to be on a one-man mission to preserve heirloom apple varieties, and to share his knowledge with a new generation of apple enthusiasts, orchardists and backyard growers. He currently maintains an orchard with 300 varieties of apple, which used to contain 456 varieties. He also wrote a book called Old Southern Apples which catalogs the many varieties he's helped preserve.

This in-depth article is not just a profile of Mr. Calhoun, the pomologist, but offers sobering facts on this most precious resource. Apple varieties in the United States once numbered over 16,0000, but this number has dropped to less than 3,000, and this lack of genetic diversity may be bad news for apples, just as it is for other species who have seen their diverse permutations dwindle in recent years.

The apples Calhoun champions have names like Blacktwig, Carter's Blue, Magnum Bonum, and Summer Orange. He offers to graft trees for their owners, and give them a new tree from the graft to plant. His enthusiasm and knowledge, not to mention a sensitive palette that can differentiate among hundreds of apples, just may create a whole new legion of heirloom apple enthusiasts.

Mr. Calhoun, I salute you! And I'd love to get one of those Magnum Bonum trees to plant out at the Brushwood Folklore Center, where we gather apples for fresh cider in September.