Remember the old lunch box apple? When you picked up your hot lunch from the middle school cafeteria, it was undoubtedly filled with a few different things: corn bread, greenish beans, something resembling mac-and-cheese — and an apple.
The apple’s pop of red brings life to your scuffed and cracked, old lunch tray. You see the fruit’s deep color, small curved stem, and foot-like pedestal – it looks like a cartoon. You save it for last and after your final sporkful of mac-and-cheese, it’s finally time. You bite in. More often than not, it looks the part of the perfect apple but proves to be bland, dry, and mealy. Its tough, chewy skin is a clear indication that it has been stored for far too long. Like the Red Woman who led Stannis Baratheon’s army to defeat, it’s time for this lunch box apple — the Red Delicious — to go.
Our nation’s apple industry is dominated by just a few different apple varieties. Including Red Delicious, only 11 apple varieties make up 90 percent of all U.S. grocery store sales. Compare that to the more than 6,500 uniquely named varieties that were cultivated in the US between 1804 and 1904. It seems that the apple industry has sought to find the one perfect apple and in the process, gone the way of Henry Ford: you can have any apple you want, as long as it’s Red Delicious.
With fresh apple season around the corner, it’s a great time to discuss Midland’s history with apples and some possibilities you might see in future orchards.
Most of you know that Herbert H. Dow started not only The Dow Chemical Co. but also built the Dow Gardens as a place for his children to play and grow. He was interested not only in landscape design but also apple trees and orchard production. By the 1920s in fact, his orchard contained more than 5,000 trees that he used for breeding and insecticide experimentation. He sought a diverse apple orchard, the most flavorful fruits, and the most effective cultural practices. At this time, Dow Gardens does not reflect his passion for apples.
However, Dow Gardens intends to illustrate this part of its history by incorporating a 125-tree heritage apple orchard into the Dow Gardens/Whiting Forest canopy walk project.
This orchard will reflect a number of different ideas. It intends to show the history of the domesticated apple from medieval varieties, grown and cultivated by Cistercian monks to the modern varieties you can find in the store today. It will compare various production practices by exampling on how growers use dwarfing rootstocks and trellising systems to increase orchard efficiency and safety.
Most of all, this orchard will focus on diversity. It will show a wide range of apple varieties and explain the many uses associated with each while offering a broad visual appeal. For example, of the 125 trees in the orchard, the average apple buyer might recognize nine varieties while a more informed consumer could recognize 16. Of those same 125 trees, some might be best used as a dessert apple – eaten out of hand, fresh off the tree. Some might be better used for making cider while still others might be best stored until spring — flavors maturing and sweetening all winter. Some might have red skin and white flesh, while others might have gray skin and red flesh. Look for blue apples, purple apples, or black apples that range in harvest dates from early August all the way into December. You might even find a tiny two-bite apple that fits comfortably between your thumb and forefinger or a deliciously sweet apple with an ugly and hard, knobbed skin.
Diversity is the name of the game when it comes to the history of apples and this orchard is about making a connection with our role in that history. So in a few years when you bring your family to this orchard, take time to look for apples that were grown by Thomas Jefferson, like Esopus Spitzenburg, Roxbury Russet, or Hewe’s Crab. Take time to experience various apples from various times and places. Take in the orchard as a whole.
This diversity is the key the apple’s success. There is different apple for a certain use, at a certain time, and a certain place. Especially in your son’s lunch box. Jeff Martin is a summer intern at Dow Gardens. Chuck Martin is a horticulturist at Dow Gardens.