Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Rosy Apple

By: Lacy Sellent, Writing Fellow at the Cable Natural History Museum

An apple tree grew along my childhood driveway.  I passed by this tree each morning on my way to the bus stop.  Sometimes I would race past it without much thought -- besides that I was going to beat my brother to the bus.  Other days I would walk slower down the gravel and think of how few people got to appreciate the world at six-thirty in the morning.  Taking my time, I would make my way over to the apple tree and grab a few rosy-red apples.  Then I’d give a little whistle and walk over to the horse pasture. 

It wouldn’t take long for the horses to spot me and they’d come trotting across the dewy grass to see if I had any goodies for them.  I’d stretch my arm out across the fence; keeping my hand flat as they approached.  With a little sniff or a slight stomp, one would come up to take the first bite.  My hand would be full of horse slobber but I didn’t care.  It was worth it to hear the satisfied crunches as the horses bit into their apples.  What a lovely thing to have an apple tree so conveniently located!

Apple didn’t always grow here.  The apple tree (Malus domestica) is a species that originated in Asia.  We’ve loved it and changed it for so long, that there are over 7,500 known cultivars of apples in the world today!  Their fruits can range in size from smaller than a golf ball to larger than a tennis ball.  

Apple trees probably arrived in America in the 1600s.  When colonists moved here, many brought seeds to plant in the New World—including apple seeds.  After several years of hard work, the colonists managed to set up the country’s first apple orchard near Boston in the 1620s.  When people began to move westward they often took small sacks of seeds with them.  One pioneer, John Chapman, became famous for doing just that. You may know him as Johnny Appleseed. 

Born in Massachusetts, John Chapman made his way from the east to the west.  In a kindly gesture, he would journey ahead of other pioneers and plant apple trees along the routes he assumed they would take.  In 1797, when Johnny was only twenty-three, he planted his first nursery along Broken Straw Creek, in Pennsylvania.  That was only the beginning.  He went on to plant seeds in Ohio and Indiana as well.

With apple trees already growing in Indiana during the early 1800s, it was only a matter of time before the trees spread from there, across Illinois and into Wisconsin.  Whether through the dispersion of seeds by animals or the planting of seeds by pioneers, the apple tree made its way to Wisconsin.  By 1850, Wisconsin was home to several apple orchards.

Many of those first orchards didn’t produce tasty apples that you would want to munch on.  Apple trees that grow from seeds are often wildly different than their parent trees.  Most uncultivated apples are far too tart for eating plain, but are just right for making cider.  That is exactly what many of Johnny Appleseed’s first orchards were used for.  In order to grow the consistently sweet apples we enjoy today, clones of the parent trees must be made by grafting twigs, called scions, onto other rootstocks. 

Although apples aren’t native to North America, many of their relatives are.  Apples are in the Rosaceae (Rose) family, which contains about 2,830 species worldwide.  In Wisconsin, members of Rosaceae include: wild plums, chokecherries, black cherries, strawberries, raspberries, thimbleberries, serviceberries, cinquefoils, mountain ash, and hawthorn.    Many of them, like apples, are edible and beautiful.  Understanding their history can help us appreciate the amazing variety of apples we will find in farmer’s markets, produce isles, and along driveways next to horse pastures this fall! 

For over 44 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. The new exhibit, The Joy of Birds: Feathers in Focus opened in May, 2011. Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Also discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,

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