Corsican Chestnuts (part 1): The social and political landscape.

I’ve wanted to go to Corsica for 15 years and thanks to the Savanna Institute for sending me to Sardinia for the European Agroforestry Conference, I was finally able to visit last week. Many people view Corsica as a vacation destination where you can enjoy the Mediterranean coastlines while drinking incredible wines and indulging in their unique cuisine. However, I’m not all that into beaches, and instead chose to spend time learning about Corsican chestnut (Castanea sativa) culture and the integration of livestock under these ancient chestnut trees. I was planning on writing one essay about the Corsican management of their chestnut trees for food and livestock, but my emotions took over and I ended up learning much more about the social culture and political ecology of Corsican chestnuts, which deserves its own essay. The second essay, soon to come, will surround the aspects of renovating, managing and processing chestnuts in Corsica.

Map of Corsica.

Castagniccia: The Chestnut Region

The first night in the Castagniccia region, in the heart of the Corsican chestnut forest, we talked with an Innkeeper about the surrounding chestnuts, provoking an unexpected story of rural flight from Corsica’s young people. Though some own land in the Castagniccia, most young people have moved to the coast or to mainland France for jobs, only returning for short periods of time- usually only time enough to pick up a small amount of chestnuts in a season. The forests here, she told me, are sick from abandonment, a theme that became amplified as we talked to more people. Because there are no people around to revive these forests, chestnut yields are in decline. Because the trees are yielding fewer nuts, it is becoming harder and harder to harvest them. The prices have ballooned to $8 euros/pound due to the fact that people are now foraging for them in an untended, overgrown forest, rather than harvesting from the abundance of stewarded chestnut forests that once fueled a culture of mountainous people.

As a result of the chestnut shortage and inflated price, chestnuts are being imported from mainland France at less than half the cost. Yet, these imported chestnuts aren’t Corsican chestnuts, as they’ve been selected and bred for fresh consumption. Corsican chestnuts are bred for flour, a dietary staple in Corsican cuisine, and have been selected over hundreds of years for this specific purpose. The mainland France chestnuts thus reduce the quality of products the Corsicans have perfected over hundreds of years.

Corsican value-added products from local chestnut flour

The next morning, on a hike into a nearby chestnut forest, it suddenly struck me that I was standing on an 850 year old chestnut terrace system. The Innkeeper was right, the ancient remnant chestnuts were suffering. Feeling the vines tightening their grip, making way for the undergrowth to fill the ever-increasing voids from chestnut die-back, an all too familiar sadness washed over me. No one is here to help the trees. No one is here to take up the responsibility of enlivening the hundreds of years of purposeful breeding and selection and tending. Without human intervention, this ancient ecosystem at the delicate intersection of wild and domesticated, will succumb to the undergrowth.

Terraces for chestnut harvesting and travel through the forest

Standing amongst this neglect, I was hit with the futility of my own work and purpose. If Corsica, a culture whose resilient identity is centered around the chestnut, is losing their chestnut forests to abandonment, what hope does the future of tree crops have in the US, whose society refuses to see the value of renovating the incredible trees that already exist? There is little-to-no respect for tending old trees unless they have aesthetic value in well-trafficked areas. Age is viewed as an illness of decline, where planting new is largely favored over investing in the old. My local land grant university has published pamphlets saying that renovating old orchards and plantings don’t make economic sense and they should be cut down and replaced with new trees, without taking ecology into account. They say the trees are vectors for disease and harmful to the new trees that have far fewer natural resistances to the climate. And yet here I am on Corsica, seeking personal inspiration to keep doing the work I love, and witnessing their ancient trees fade away.

Overgrown Chestnut Forest

Why is this happening here? Why are the chestnut forests in decline? In asking these questions to chestnut growers and producers, I received pieces of answers that together, formed a larger picture. Please note: If anyone reading this is Corsican and has corrections, please contact me through I’d love to connect with you.


Due to its strategic location in the Mediterranean, Corsica has been fraught with invasion for the entirety of its human inhabitation. For five hundred years, leading into the 18th century, the island was somewhat under Genoese rule. While the Genoese occupied the coast, the Corsicans occupied the mountains, where the chestnuts grew wild and abundantly (pollen records show Castanea sativa present in the Neolithic period). Though the Corsicans found fault and corruption in nearly everything the Genoese did, one of the greatest gifts bestowed on the Corsicans was that of improved chestnut cultivars. Specifically, grafting the wild-growing chestnuts over to cultivars that make flour (the big fat grafts of these flour-producing cultivars are still alive today on 800+ year-old trees). It was the ability to make bread from these grafted chestnuts that supported human resiliency on seriously rough terrain. This resiliency also bled into Corsican politics and their fight for independence and autonomy. In the Mid-18th century, Genoa secretly sold Corsica to the French 13 years after the Corsicans had formed their own republic (if you get a chance, listen to this fascinating podcast on Pasquale Paoli). The sale to France led the Corsicans to fight several battles for their independence, eventually succumbing to French rule. To this day, Corsica’s wish for autonomy from France is loud and clear, citing the illegitimate circumstances of their colonization.

The Decline

Despite French rule, Corsicans continued to tend the chestnut forests and produce flour until WWI, when 1 in 12 Corsicans were killed in war, losing the next generation of land stewards. With the massive loss in able-bodied labor, Corsica’s economy went into a recession which caused a mass exodus of the population. After nearly 700 years of forest stewardship for chestnut flour, WWI marks the beginning of decline.

Corsican chestnut harvest, late 19th century

Abandonment: Rural Gentrification
After WWII, Corsica became a major vacation destination for the French. Over the years, this has ramped up to the point where the island’s population now swells by four times its size in the summer months. Due to its popularity, many French nationals have bought property on this island, which in turn has caused a drastic rise in real estate values that choke the Corsican’s ability to stay on the land and keep their culture alive. This rural gentrification, which I’m all too familiar with in the US, is one of the larger causes fueling the abandonment of the chestnut forests today.

What does rural gentrification look like? It looks like second homes or land investments owned by, as one Corsican farmer put it, “functionaries.” This was a polite way of saying that these people are very educated in ways that do not include the skills or awareness necessary to steward the precious resources they now own. These “functionaries,” who choose to seasonally inhabit or be absentee to these rural areas, are able to pay much more than those who derive their livelihoods from the land. With rising land costs preventing ownership, there are few options to steward land outside of those closely linked with modern-day feudalism. Of course, lifetime leases are naturally preferable in order to perform the tremendous amount of skilled work needed to restore these forests, yet they are extremely rare. The needed infusion of energy into abandoned land will never come from short-term leases that absentee or unskilled owners widely prefer.

Many of you reading this can relate, as this is not an isolated problem of Corsica. In the United States, a massive transfer of land has happened since the COVID pandemic. This transfer is taking land out of the hands of the capable and into the hands of unaware”functionaries” looking to diversify their wealth investments. With islands being important indicators for their mainland counterparts, it is devastating to witness the Corsicans struggling to gain long-term access to their land, culture and identity.

Without reform, the untended ancient chestnut forests will certainly fade away. Without action in our own countries to curb the ever-growing concerns of neo-feudalism and recover the abandoned past, the multi-generational future of agroforestry feels more like a movement and less like a way of life. Without supporting the long-term access and energy investment in land by able-bodied people, the succession of today’s plantings will succumb to abandonment as well.

I stand in solidarity with the Corsican people. May they gain their autonomy and become a beacon of hope for the rest of us.

The next essay (coming soon): Corsican chestnuts (Part 2): Restoration, care, diversification and flour


Dr. Maxine Thompson: Fruit Explorer, Geneticist, Horticulturalist.

Though Dr. Maxine Thompson died last year, days before Taylor Malone and I were scheduled to interview her for a podcast, a friend sent me her obituary (written by Kim Hummer of the NCGR in Corvallis, Oregon) this week as a reminder of how much of a badass she was. Founder of the USDA ARS clonal genebank repositories, fruit breeder, and fruit explorer. I wanted to share her obituary here.

Dr. Maxine Thompson with her blue honeysuckle, Lonicera caerulea

Emeritus Professor Dr. Maxine M. Thompson, Horticulturist, Plant Explorer (1926 – 2021)

 Dr. Maxine M. Thompson, world-renowned horticulturist and plant explorer passed away on 1 March 2021. Maxine was born on 3 November 1926, in Bloomington, Illinois. After a few years in Illinois and Minnesota, her family moved to Pasadena, California, where she grew up. She received an Associate of Arts degree from Pasadena Junior College in 1945, and a B.S. in Plant Science in 1948, M.S. in Horticulture (Pomology) in 1951, and Ph.D. in Genetics in 1960, all from the University of California- Davis. Her major professor was Dr. H. P. Olmo, the renowned grape breeder. While in graduate school, she married Harry S. Thompson, a student in the Veterinary College. They had two children, Michael and Laurie.

From 1960 to 1964, Dr. Thompson took a position as a part-time Junior Specialist in the Viticulture Department at the University of California-Davis, while simultaneously caring for her young children as a single parent. In 1964, she accepted a position as Assistant Professor in Biology at Wisconsin State College-Oshkosh, where she taught General Botany, Cytology, and Genetics. In 1965, she moved to Corvallis, Oregon, where she had a series of temporary appointments in the Department of Botany and the Department of Horticulture. She was supervised by Dr. Quentin Zielinski, until his untimely passing.  In 1969, she became Assistant Professor of Horticulture, the first woman to be appointed to a tenure track position in that department. Her major research activities involved fruit breeding and genetics of hazelnut and sweet cherry, and floral biology, pollination, fruit set, and cytological studies of fruit and nut species. Her teaching responsibilities included undergraduate classes in General Botany, and Fruit Systematics and graduate classes in Plant Genetics, Pollination, and Fruit set. 

During her assignment at Oregon State University, Dr. Thompson was an excellent mentor to graduate students. She provided a friendly face, generous use of laboratory equipment, and helpful advice whenever students visited her fourth floor lab. When students had difficult times, she spoke up for those who had complexities of balancing a professional career while managing a young family.

Dr. Thompson was fascinated with wild and cultivated plant variation. This interest was born in her freshman General Botany class and expanded over many years to her final project, the breeding of blue honeysuckle, Lonicera caerulea L. Dr. Thompson was one of the founding scientists who lobbied for clonal genebanks in the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS). Thanks in no small part to her efforts the first clonal genebank was dedicated in Corvallis, Oregon, in 1981. For many years, she participated on the Technical Committees for the National Clonal Germplasm Repository (NCGR) in Corvallis, and the Western Regional Plant Introduction Station, Pullman, Washington. 

Her international genetic resources activities began with consultancies with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in 1982. She was hired to assess under-utilized fruits and nuts in six southeastern Asian countries (India, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines). She was assigned to a second consultancy that assessed fruit and nut genetic resources in Pakistan. Her objective was to recommend plant collection expeditions and design a plan for clonal genebanks in that country. 

In 1986, she retired from her faculty position at Oregon State to embark on a series of U.S. Department of Agriculture sponsored international plant explorations for fruit and nut genetic resources. Her first trip, in 1987, was a six-month expedition to the mountains of Northern Pakistan, a region adjacent to Central Asia and rich in diversity of fruit and nut species. Next, she accompanied Dr. Calvin Sperling, USDA Plant Explorer, to Central Asia in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan to collect apricots, cherries, peaches, plums, and apples. That same year she and Dr. Jim Ballington traveled to Ecuador to collect Rubus, Vaccinium, and other members of the Ericaceae with potential ornamental value.  In 1992, she led an expedition to the southwest of the People’s Republic of China to collect blackberries and raspberries in Guizhou Province. She traveled to Kyrgyzstan, in 1994, to collect walnuts. In 1996, she returned to the People’s Republic of China, this time to the northeast. She led the expedition to collect small fruit germplasm in Jilin and Heilongjian Provinces with collaborators Chad Finn and Joseph Postman. Her final two expeditions occurred in 1998, to eastern Siberia, Russia, and in 2000, to Hokkaido, Japan, to obtain blue honeysuckle.  Because of her plant collecting expeditions, Dr. Thompson donated 645 accessions (seeds and plants) to the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS). In 1997, Dr. Thompson was honored with the Crop Science Society’s Frank M. Meyer Medal for Plant Genetic Resources, and, in 2000, with the American Pomological Society’s Wilder Medal.

The high caliper of Dr. Thompson’s science continues to be recognized. Fruit breeders and students of pomology study her Rubus cytogenetics manuscripts as seminal. Her manuscripts on the floral biology and non-dormancy of hazelnut are frequently cited. Her research into incompatibility in hazelnuts provided techniques for standard tests now used by several generations of nut breeders. 

In the mid 1970’s, Dr. Thompson and plant pathologist colleague, Dr. H. Ronald Cameron, visited diseased orchards in southwest Washington. They noticed that among the nearly dead ‘DuChilly’ trees were pollinizer trees free of cankers.  She made the first crosses with this pollinizer, ‘Gasaway’, in 1976.  Recent releases from the OSU hazelnut breeding program carry a single dominant allele from ‘Gasaway’ that confers a high level of resistance to eastern filbert blight. From crosses made by Dr. Thompson, the Oregon State University hazelnut breeding program released four main crop cultivars (‘Willamette,’ ‘Lewis,’ ‘Clark’ and ‘Tonda Pacifica’), four pollinizers with high resistance to eastern filbert blight (VR 4-31, VR 11-27, VR 20-11, and VR 23-18), and one red-leafed ornamental (‘Rosita’). ‘Lewis’ was, for about a decade, the most widely planted cultivar in Oregon, until the release of ‘Yamhill’ and ‘Jefferson’.  Growers have eagerly planted the resistant cultivars. Hazelnut orchards in Oregon increased from 29,000 acres in 2009, to more than 80,000 acres in 2021.  

Since her final plant collecting expedition in 2000, Dr. Thompson embarked on the breeding of blue honeysuckle, called “Haskappu” in Hokkaido. Over the years, she obtained plant material from Russia and Japan. The Japanese subspecies Lonicera caerulea L. var. emphyllocalyx (Maxim.) Nakaiproved to be the most useful parent because its flowering time suited the climate of the Willamette Valley. She planted thousands of seedlings, and selected improved genotypes. Of these, she released and patented 10 cultivars.  She continued this program on her own resources, supplemented with small research grants, but mainly out of her love and devotion to horticulture.  

Her fierce independence and sharp scientific mind lead to a remarkable horticultural career. Her work spanned a score of years when our society’s concept of women in the workplace greatly changed. When she began, women, worked hard to be noticed professionally, and were offered lower salaries than were received by male counterparts. Those of us who have come along since then take for granted that our abilities are considered on equal par with other qualified individuals. The meritorious work of Dr. Thompson and others brought about this change. Dr. Maxine M. Thompson, geneticist, horticulturalist, professor, world explorer, and mentor, will continue to inspire generations of horticulturists yet to come.

Maxine requested no memorial service. Please remember her in your heart. 

Heart Rot: The bridge between ecology and horticulture

I’m a lifelong student of pruning. I LOVE learning, observing, and theorizing over tree physiology and applying newfound thoughts and theories with curiosity and gratitude every pruning season. Earlier this week, I saw yet another article talking negatively about heart rot, which motivated me to finally finish my essay on the subject. In this essay I’ll talk positively about heart rot, tree physiology, pruning and orchard ecology.

Heart rot art: Texas? Peen? Elephant?

“That’s heart rot. The tree’s health is in decline” replied one horticulturalist to the above photo. “Hey, that’s heart rot…you had better apply a fungicide spray” replied someone else. And my response? Have you ever pruned an old tree?!

When it comes to pruning, I almost exclusively work with old trees and I see this a lot. Yes, it’s heart rot. No, I do not believe this tree is in imminent danger or even in decline, which is surprisingly a stance that not many people take. And so we’ll start there.

What is heart rot?
Heart rot is what happens when the pith of a tree (the center) starts to decay. The instigators of this core decay are fungi that get into the heartwood through wounds, broken branches, pruning cuts, etc. In a healthy tree, they only stay in the heartwood, which is the part of the tree that is not considered alive. It is often thought of as the dumping grounds for the tree, where minerals and older tree rings go to rest.

As fungi gradually work their way through the heartwood, the tree becomes hollow over time. In the timber realm, these fungi are considered harmful pathogens because they reduce the value of a log. Hollow logs= less money. This way of thinking, that fungi are harmful pathogens and hollow is unsaleable, somehow worked its way into horticulture, only this time… Fungi= harmful, Hollow=structurally unsound/sick/dying. So very rarely have I seen someone in the horticultural realm step back on the subject of heart rot to see the forest for the trees, which is why I’m writing this essay.

What is heart rot doing to the tree?
Way back in 2007, when I was doing a lot of forest inventory in Louisiana, I had to core all sorts of trees in order to assess their health and age. Often, after removing the core, I’d get sprayed with stinky water, spurted with methane from the hole I created, or witness a mass evacuation of insects. Lots of life inhabited those trees and that’s because heart rot fungi slowly made way for life to be there. This concept of rot-makes-habitat was really hammered home when I helped a USDA sniper tranq some inbreeding black bears that had chosen to calve in the cavities of old cypress trees. Straight up Winnie-the-Pooh habitat, those cypress swamps. Only poor Winnie was shacking up with his cousin in this scenario and had to move.

Original illustration of Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
This tree is a pollarded tree

Fast forward 11 years to 2018, when I flew to Basque France to attend a conference on pollarding. It was there, surrounded by European foresters, forest engineers and horticulturalists, that everyone had a special place in their soul for heart rot and hollow trees, something I had never encountered before. A prevailing opinion, which I now view as a bridge between forest ecology and horticulture, was that heart rot creates hollows/habitats for all sorts of fauna. In hosting this fauna, the trees become collectors of poo (feces, not the bear). This creates an incredible microbial metabolism in the tree which, when combined with decomposing heartwood full of trapped minerals, supplies a steady amount of organic fertilizer that is slowly released to the base of the tree. Since trees store growth rings in the heartwood on an annual basis, this natural process of decomposition and fertilizing is a renewable. Hollow trees provide their own compost. That’s true sustainability.

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But isn’t a hollow tree a weakened tree?
The comparison I always see is that heart rot or hollowing makes the tree structurally unsound. I’m here to tell you that this is mostly an emotional reaction. In all reality (and some physics), the tree isn’t weakened at all until the trunk’s radius is 70% hollow1.

Mattheck paper cited at end of this essay

And keep in mind, that’s an un-pruned forest tree with a full crown. If the tree is pruned to allow for airflow and to correct for weight imbalances, the hollow tree is much more structurally sound. An old pollarded willow tree, for example, boasts complete structural soundness until the trunk’s radius is 93% hollow2 thanks to a radically reduced crown . This tells me that mostly hollow orchard trees (on good root systems. Eff dwarfing trees), if pruned regularly, pose very little structural threat.

What causes a hollow tree to ultimately fail?
When trees are hollow and the wind has a strong influence over them (most likely due to crown size and density), the circular trunk becomes a bit oblong. This creates a vertical crack, which is the ultimate shearing stress for the tree. Again, pruning for crown reduction in old trees really helps to avoid the development of these shear cracks.

Mattheck et al.

More explained through tree physiology.
Here’s the deal. Trees contain both sapwood and heartwood (see tree cross section picture at beginning of essay). The sapwood is the outer, living, layer of the tree that is responsible for carrying water and nutrients up to the canopy. Think of it as a bunch of tubes, or vessels (xylem), constituting the lifeline of the tree. Since this is one of the most important parts of the tree, it’s a heavy consumer of photosynthetic energy and a lot of that energy is spent on defense against pathogens (like fungi and bacteria) entering into this important area of transport.

If the sapwood is injured, the tree has an incredible and diverse defense process. One defense in particular that is easy to conceptualize is when tissues (parenchyma) outside of the vessels (xylem) cauterize the wounded vessels and separate them from sound vessels. In Malus, wounded vessels get plugged with a starchy-watery gum that is aptly named “vessel plug.” Other trees have tyloses instead of gum, and when the vessel (xylem) is injured, the parenchyma tissue grows into the cut chamber to seal it off3 .

I’m telling you about vessel plugs only to hammer home the point that sapwood has a lot of defenses that work tirelessly to keep invaders, whether from an accident or from decomposing heartwood, away from their life-transport network. This is part of the reason why maintaining a youthful vigor in a tree is important, because younger wood contains a higher ratio of sapwood to heartwood, increasing the defense capabilities of a tree on a minimal energy budget.

The higher ratio of sapwood to heartwood is also why it is better to prune younger wood on fruit trees. When pruning, the wound is much more efficiently cauterized and uses less energy.

Bonsen and Bucher

I’ll also note that the ability to cauterize, or create fast boundaries to some sort of attack, is often genetic. Look no further than fireblight tolerance in a durable apple like the Dula Beauty (triploid) compared to the sickly Esopus Spitzenburg to get a better idea of the genetic range.

Pruning larger limbs.
When I consider pruning larger limbs, the rule of thumb for me, unless a giant intervention needs to happen or I’m topworking (grafting in place), is that I often don’t cut limbs larger than 4 inches in diameter. This is strictly something I do in considering the tree’s energy. If the ratio of sapwood to heartwood goes down with age, then it takes a lot more photosynthetic energy (that starch-water mixture) to plug up a larger wound on an apple than it would a smaller wound. Add that energy expense to the tree simultaneously trying to activate dormant buds to create new growth, and even I’m exhausted. Let me be clear, though. I’m not doing this to protect from heart rot, which costs the tree relatively little energy. I’m doing this to help the tree balance its defense and growth energy.

Hollow trees in the orchard: Mycorrhizae
If you believe that hollow trees create their own compost and self-fertilize, and if you believe that pruning trees is a way to make hollow trees more stable, then let’s briefly mention mycorrhizae.

Mycorrhizae is the fungal network that is known to connect trees to other trees and allow them to talk and share resources. They connect trees to other resources by having their hyphae (or the fungal threads of mycorrhizae) grow in and around the tree roots. The roots release sugary exudates, which feed the hyphae and give them energy to go mingle. What causes a tree to release sugary root exudates? Pruning is one way, because tree branches are connected to tree roots. Once you start pruning a tree, the fine root system connected to those branches will die back. It’s not a 1:1 prune: root dieback ratio, as the root system is larger than the crown, but there is for sure some dieback.

What’s more interesting to me, however, is the confluence of fine root dieback from pruning, plant-microbe interactions from a hollowed out trunk and fungal hyphae in the soil. It’s a bit like Captain Planet; when these three powers combine, nutrient uptake and overall ecosystem health are enhanced. And this is why I’m on team ‘hollow tree.’ It’s almost as if the tree is creating it’s own “edge,” or diverse environment in which it and everything around it thrives in a wild and chaotic balance.

Final Comments (for now):

Instead of viewing hollows as condos for pathogens, view them as beneficial habitats that improve your orchard ecology. They are important refuges for all sorts of critters, from insects to birds, microbes to fungi, and maybe even a black bear (just kidding). Given how important these hollows are, NEVER! and I repeat, NEVER! Fill those holes up with concrete or bricks or anything else. Not only does it royally piss me off to ruin a chainsaw chain to some branch that was filled with concrete, but it’s not helping the tree in any way. And would you want to come home one day only to find your house filled with concrete? No.

Let’s keep an open mind to heart rot, ok? It’s performing a pretty amazing ecosystem service with no inputs from me.



1.) Mattheck, C., Bethge, K., & Tesari, I. (2006). Shear effects on failure of hollow trees. Trees, 20(3), 329–333.

2.) Wessolly L, Erb M (1998) Handbuch der Baumstatik und Baumkontrolle, Patzer Verlag

3.) Bonsen, K. J. M., & Bucher, H. P. (1991). WHAT ARBORISTS HAVE TO KNOW ABOUT VESSEL PLUGS. Arboricultural Journal, 15(1), 13–17.

Know anyone who might want to sell a farm somewhere in the Eastern half of VA. I’m looking. Click here.

I’m trying to buy a farm in VA

For the last 2 years, I’ve been trying to buy a farm to plant a repository of fruits, nuts and fodder cultivars and I’m still looking. Because of the fact that I really need to find some land soon, I’m writing this blog post to put it out there. Why is this so hard? Here are my thoughts…

1.) Covid and Interest Rates: Many of the city and suburb people seem to be leaving for larger properties now that Covid has them working from home. Combined with low interest rates, these people are buying farms. Not only are they buying farms, but they are waiving inspections and bidding up the price- something I cannot do.

2.) FSA loans. I am completely self employed and though I have great credit and adequate demonstrable farm income to afford a decent mortgage, it’s not enough to get a conventional loan. They ultimately want someone with a W-2. Therefore, my only option is to get a loan through the Farm Service Agency (FSA), an agency within the USDA that exists to make loans to farmers because they know this is a problem. Though on paper this loan looks really sweet- up to 40 year mortgage, low interest, no down payment, it is proving to be a nightmare. Here’s why:

  • No pre-approvals. The government doesn’t pre-approve, and you must submit your application over and over again for each farm you have a signed contract to buy. Each time, they go over your business plan, your existing finances, the appraisal of the property, etc. Only, no contracts to buy have manifested themselves because I can’t get pre-approved. I cannot find any organizations working on the legislation around this.
  • 90 day minimum discover/financing period. In talking with FSA agents, this is the minimum time needed to process your loan application and give both you and the seller an answer.
  • County FSA offices. The USDA’s Farm Service Agency is decentralized and broken down into county offices all over. Because my search for land spans several counties, I’ve spoken with FSA loan offices in all of them and they range from being extremely helpful and open minded to down right ignorant and dismissive of my abilities and business plan. It doesn’t help my optimism when articles are also published about how women and minority farmers and ranchers receive disproportionately less credit than their white male counterparts through the FSA.
  • Business plans. I don’t grow corn and soy. I do, however, have a history of pigs and nursery products and growing/managing orchards. My last conversation with an agent revealed that I probably shouldn’t elaborate on the nursery or orchard part of my business plan because “we don’t understand those businesses” and, instead, should focus on hogs because those numbers are easier. This is incredibly frustrating. So, do I write a largely fake business plan?
  • You might not get the loan. It takes 45 days to find out if you and your business plan have been approved for the farm. Another 45 days to finance the property.

Having to go through the FSA has turned into one heartbreak after another. After an offer was rejected yesterday, my realtor called to tell me that it’s looking like my only hope is in finding someone who wants to sell but hasn’t listed their property yet. He’s talking with some of his realtor friends to see if they might know of anyone or anything coming up… but that’s what this loan has become. I’ve also written loads of blind letters to landowners asking if they might be interested in selling and the answer, if I get one, is always no. One lady kindly called me back to tell me that a man grows corn and beans on her land and all the land around her and says he’s got a long-term lease. Which is a whole other issue that I won’t get into in this essay, but lease bullying of older women landowners is a real thing.

Other questions you might be asking in your head:

  • Why not lease? I have a lease and it’s a good one. I trust my business partnership and feel confident in the lease’s longevity. It is, however, simply too small of a piece of land to hold all of the trees I am trying to save, evaluate and give jobs so they’ll stay around and be employed by others.

    What about a good lease on more land? It’s a dangerous proposition for me to operate my life’s work on other people’s land. I was interviewed this week by an ag non-profit and they asked me: “On a scale from 1 to 10 (1 being strongest, 10 being least), how much do you identify as a farmer?” I had to answer that in my late 20s, I was a 1 (when I started this blog). That identity combined with non-ownership of my trees and lost access causes a deep and dark depression that I cannot describe and never want to face again. These days, I’m probably a 6 or a 7 simply because of a need for self-preservation. I have clarity and focus and more purpose than ever before and, yet, cannot take anymore risks with land tenure. The next steps have to happen on land that I own. And if that can’t be in the next 6 months, I am going to need to reevaluate everything that feels so solid, which is a crushing proposition.

    What about on non-profit land? Putting my work’s canvas in the hands of a board is terrifying to me. I’ve seen boards overturn. I’ve seen them bend to the loudest, most emphatic member. I’ve seen board deals worked behind the back of others on the board, eliminating group conversation. Having my livelihood and passion be in the future of a board would pump me with a never-ending sense of foreboding.

    You could put your trees on my property! I get this a lot and, respectfully, I am not interested. I know you are well-intentioned, but it’s spreading myself too thin. It’s not owning the trees. It’s the unknown.

How to move forward?

Well, it seems as if I need to find someone who wants to both sell me a farm and be sympathetic to the FSA loan process, or otherwise offer creative financing. I’m looking for the following:

  • I’m looking for around 30 acres of land with at least 50% in fields of well drained ag soil in zone 7a, 7b or 8a . But I’d take smaller if I could be on it by this winter.
  • Within a 150 mile radius of Southeastern VA (Hampton Roads, Middle Peninsula Northern Neck and inland) OR 20-ish minutes off any route between Northern VA and Southeastern VA.
  • I prefer a house on the property, but it’s not necessary. If no house, on-site electricity and a well with some outbuildings is strongly preferred. Again, at least 13-15 acres needs to be in fields and not forested.
  • I’m open to offering life estate if someone in advanced retirement wishes to remain in the house, but I need access to the land ASAP.
  • Old orchards (older than 1980) or former orchard land (pre-1980s) are not preferred due to likely lead-arsenate toxicity in the soil and this is a problem for livestock.
  • My budget honestly varies depending on the property. Just let me know what you’re willing to sell it for and I can crunch some numbers.
  • The business plan surrounds producing orchards, nursery space and some livestock. I’m willing to share it with seriously interested parties. I am not interested in business partners for this business plan.

    Know anyone who might be interested? I can’t post my personal contact information on here for security purposes, but please email or submit a message through my website,

    I’m open to other suggestions as well, just get in contact with me

Triploid Apples: An adventure into their history, breeding and use

One of the most important considerations to me when growing apples in the South is if the cultivar has a tolerance to pests and diseases. Called “the final frontier” by my Northern and Western apple growing friends, the Mid-Atlantic and the rest of the US South are notoriously difficult areas to grow domesticated fruit. In true Southern hospitality, our soupy humidity and hot temperatures not only extend a warm embrace to all sorts of pest and disease here, but invite them to stay for a long while and breed.

Despite this high diversity of fungal, bacterial and insect pressure, there are still old apple trees in the landscape that have survived decades upon decades of environmental assault. These trees have been the subject and target of much interest in my network of fruit explorers, as these specimens are proof that it is possible to grow purposeful fruit and trees in this landscape without toxic, self-perpetuating inputs. In past essays, I’ve discussed rootstocks being a factor in this, where larger root systems tended to produce healthier trees.  But there are more factors in resilience than just the root system. In today’s essay, which has literally been in my drafts for 3 years, I want to discuss something I’ve been casually studying for years: Polyploidy, or having more than 2 paired sets of chromosomes.

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I’ll begin with a bit of history. In the early 1900s, there was a Swedish plant breeder and geneticist named Herman Nilsson-Ehle, who had spent much of his professorial career breeding wheat and oats for high yields in Sweden. He was a huge fan of Gregor Mendel, who had released his findings on inheritance only 8 years prior to Nilsson-Ehle’s birth, and his whole outlook on plant breeding research was a hat tip to Mendel. Mendel, for those of you who may be struggling to remember, was the Monk who stared at pea plants and developed the fundamental laws of inheritance, which we encountered in high school biology as the punnett square .

Before I go any further, I want to give a quick warning. From my research on Nilsson-Ehle, it appears he was a fan of “new Germany,” and saw the genetics research under Hitler’s regime as a means to save the world. In order to only showcase the apple breeding aspect of this man, I’m not going any further in this subject. If you want to read more on his thoughts, which scarily echo modern times, you can go here: Lundell 2016

In his early research of breeding cereal crops, Nilsson-Ehle would sometimes observe natural mutations in the hundreds of thousands of seeds he planted out for observation. These mutations had much larger, rounder leaves and after poking and prodding these mutants, he discovered their large size was due to having 2 additional sets of chromosomes, or polyploidy (Usually a diploid (2 sets of chromosomes), these plants were now tetraploid (4 sets of chromosomes). These plants exhibited giantism in all ways aside from vigor (which was relatively low). While the leaves and shoots were much thicker than diploids (2 chromosomal pairs), the flowers, fruits and seeds were nearly double in size. This was remarkable to Nilsson-Ehle and prompted him to theorize: If I take this mutant tetraploid and cross it back with its diploid self from the same cultivar, I should get a triploid (3 sets of chromosomes) that brings about enhanced genetics of both! 


He was right. The tetraploids he crossed with diploids produced triploids that were more vigorous, hardy and resistant to disease than their diploid or tetraploid counterparts due to enhanced genetic modifiers inherited from the parents of two different ploidy (tetraploid and diploid). This brings me back to fruit exploring in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern US. The large majority of US cultivars known today as being able to tolerate fireblight, apple scab, powdery mildew, and loads of other issues while still persisting in the Southern landscape for decades upon decades are triploids! Including the Dula Beauty, my sturdy family apple cultivar.

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So the US picked up on Nilsson-Ehle’s breeding work and adopted it to their work in the states to breed for hardy, disease resistant apples, right? Nope. WW2 happened and we were already distracted with breeding for scab resistance (more about that in a bit). In 1950, famed berry breeder George Darrow reported on Nilsson-Ehle’s work in an address to the American Horticultural Society. In this address, he mentioned the premise behind Nilsson-Ehle’s work and connected the dots in how this way of thinking has translated into berry breeding for larger, higher quality cultivars. He briefly mentioned apples in this address, reporting that a tetraploid sport (mutant) of McIntosh had been found growing on branches of a normal McIntosh tree in New England, but the mutant branch was only half tetraploid, as the cortex of the wood was diploid (making it a ploidy chimera). He said they were trying to stabilize the McIntosh chimera as a full tetraploid through tissue culture, and I believe they achieved this due to the photo below. This was the end of an interest in sustainable fruit breeding in the US, in my grumpy opinion.

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Come on, Eliza, what about the Liberty apple? Goldrush? RedFree? Prima? [Slight rant/history on apple scab. Skip to below scabby apple pic to avoid]. Sure, there was a breeding effort between selected US land grant universities (PRI= Purdue, Rutgers, Univ. of Illinois) that began in 1926 to create scab resistant apples. They succeeded in doing so in a basic sort of way, which eventually led to the downfall of this research.  The style of their research was “monogenic,” or relying on a single gene to control scab resistance in an apple cultivar. There was also a whole lotta inbreeding going on.

The gene identified to have scab resistance is called the “vF gene,” which comes from the cultivar “Malus floribunda 821.” The reason why they picked this gene is because they could identify it in seedlings using molecular markers, so they didn’t have to waste time growing the trees to find out if it was scab susceptible or not.  That worked out well enough for a while and they selected some ho-hum cultivars (minus Goldrush, which is awesome but incredibly prone to cedar apple rust) to make available to the public. In 2002, the first reports of scab infection were reported on the scab-resistant apple cultivar ‘Prima.’

In 2011, a German pomologist wrote an article about all of this and, thankfully, it was translated into English shortly thereafter. What he found, looking into the lineage of most US and Euro scab resistant apple cultivars, was a huge amount of inbreeding going on. Not only that, but the cultivars being crossed back to themselves were highly susceptible to scab! I’ll quote directly from the article:

“Today the global fruit breeding industry is producing a wide range of varieties, with one big difference: the overwhelming majority are descendants of just six apple cultivars.

The author’s analysis of five hundred commercial varieties developed since 1920, mainly Central European and American types, shows that most are descended from Golden Delicious, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Jonathan, McIntosh, Red Delicious or James Grieve. This means they have at least one of these apples in their family tree, as a parent, grandparent or great-grandparent…” 

Many of the PRI releases have these 6 cultivars crossed multiple times in their lineage. If you do this right and bring out the right traits without problems, it’s called ‘line breeding’. If you end up with problems, it’s called ‘inbreeding’.

The second and main problem with this breeding work, in my opinion, was in our complacency with our selections. We basically ignored any further breeding efforts for scab resistance in order to pursue “Crisp” apples. Takeaway message: FEEL GUILTY ABOUT EATING A HONEYCRISP, COSMICCRISP, CRIMSONCRISP KARDASHIANCRISP ETC. BECAUSE THATS WHAT BREEDING LOOKS LIKE NOW INSTEAD OF BEING ABLE TO GROW APPLES WITHOUT MAJOR INPUTS! Too bad we haven’t been thinking about triploids or even multiple-gene scab control for the last 50 years.

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Guess who has? Russia. 

Since the early 80s, the All Russian Research Institute of Fruit Crop Breeding (VNIISPK) has continued with the scab resistant vF breeding work that spread across the US and Europe, only it is way more badass. Not only are they breeding for scab resistance, but they’re breeding for tolerance to late frosts, consistent yields without having to thin fruit, COLUMNAR growing habit AND Nilsson-Ehle’s version of triploidy (Speak a little more into my dirty ear, Russia). However, the near-sensationalism of these claims doesn’t stop there. Dr. Evgeny Sedov, the primary researcher in this endeavor (and someone I would really love to interview), closes the abstract of one of his scientific papers that goes into his triploidy research with the following that is so, so Russian:

“It is noted that triploid apple cultivars developed at VNIISPK are inferior to none of the foreign cultivars, based on a complex of commercial traits, and they significantly excel foreign cultivars in adaptability. Our apple cultivars may contribute to the import substitution of fruit production in Russia.”

Some mentioned and additional benefits of triploids (Or reasons to pursue more polyploidy breeding):

  • Adaptability to climate, disease, stress: In the above quote, Sedov writes how his triploid apple cultivars significantly kick other apple cultivar ass in terms of adaptability. And based on my research covering the last 100 years, he’s not wrong. There have been many observations by the scientific and lay community reporting that triploids end up being more cold hardy, more heat tolerant (the thickness of leaves and fewer, larger stomata give rise to a lower transpiration rate and more water retention that can be used during drought), have better nutrient uptake, and improved resistance to insects and pathogens. The theory for triploids having a higher environmental adaptability has to do with  an increased production of secondary metabolites, which enhance plant resistance and tolerance mechanisms (as well as chemical defense).
  • Thinning: Triploids often have low fertility due to a reproductive barrier of having an extra set of chromosomes- making pollination difficult. Some apple pollen tends to pair decently well with triploid apples to get a decent crop. With most cultivars it isn’t great- just good. This could be seen as a boon to this class of ploidy, but I see it as a good thing. One of the greatest challenges to organic apple production is the thinning process. Most non-organic orchards thin using chemical sprays to knock off flowers or fruits. To this day, many organic spray chemicals either do a lackluster job, or oh-god-that’s-far-too-many-job of thinning the fruitlets off, leaving many orchardists to either thin by hand or accept biennalism (which was a 3 hour conversation at Stump Sprouts one year). If you have healthy pollinator populations, less fruit on the tree will guarantee you a return crop the next year, barring other environmental catastrophes (which you’re better prepared for with triploids, anyways).
  • Vigor: In the past, I’ve written about vigor on the blog and how it’s my number one enemy in the Mid-Atlantic given my heavy soils, warm temperatures and ample water supply. Though I need to revisit those essays and condense them into my current evolution of thought, the reason for my past concerns around vigor is that I have conditions that induce [what I’d like to think is] “artificial vigor.” In my climate, this shows up as extreme vegetative growth, which sometimes gives rise to heightened fireblight pressure and other vulnerabilities. Though “artificial vigor” is likely what an incompatibility of growing conditions looks like, I’ve started to differentiate it from what I’m calling “true vigor,” or youthfulness through heterosis/hybrid vigor. This is where triploids shine.

    When you start digging in old texts, back before the rise of clonal rootstocks, you might encounter mention of two classes of trees referred to as “Standards” and “Fillers.” The “standards,” often mentioned as Baldwin and Rhode Island Greening (both triploids) were larger trees that took longer to bear fruit. These were thought to be permanent trees, or trees that would be around for generations. The “fillers,” such as Yellow Transparent and Wealthy, produce much smaller trees in the same length of time and were far more precocious in bearing fruit. These trees were thought to be temporary, and were planted in between the “standards” to increase production in the early life of the orchard. An unfortunate modern day “filler” would be HoneyCrisp (diploid). Growing in my climate, it is better termed runtycrisp. Super low vigor, gets loads of diseases, precocious bearer, dies early. Sort of an orchard mercenary. This, to me, is a good way to think about vigor. If you’re growing for the long-term, you’ll want a truly vigorous cultivar that teems with youthful energy, and I believe that youth is heightened as a triploid. If you are growing in areas that are full of pest and disease, it is also not a bad idea to have an extra set of chromosomes to help with defense and stress. Relic trees standing tall in the South tend to be triploid and their presence speaks to their youth and defense: Arkansas black. Fallawater. King David. Leathercoat. Roxbury Russet. Stayman Winesap. 

    With all of this said, we have a lot of work ahead of us to start thinking about what our breeding programs would look like if we set our targets on low-input, no spray, multi-gene disease tolerance and more. I get it, HoneyCrisp can store for a calendar year in my crisper drawer, but that’s all it has going for it after a year in there.

    I am pulling for the expansion of ‘process’ industries such as hard cider, vinegar, juices, syrups, etc to become the targets of agroforestry planning and planting enterprises in the near future. Annual or livestock farmers don’t want to mess with sprays or inputs that are outside of their normal non-tree crops care. If they are going to receive incentives to plant trees on their farms, they will want the ones that need little care and have an economic outlet. This will require a new set of apple cultivars to choose from and they have to come from somewhere…


Here is an incomplete list of confirmed triploid apples. Many of these are from the UK and do so-so in my climate. The ones with asterisks are what I have seen as old relic trees in the Mid-Atlantic:
Arkansas Black*
Ashmeads Kernel*
Belle De Boskoop
Blenheim Orange
Bramley’s Seedling
Bulmers Norman
Canadian Reinette
Crimson Bramley
Crimson King
Dula Beauty*
Fall Pippin*
Genete Moyle
Golden Reinette von Blenheim
King David*
King of Tompkins County
Lady Finger
Morgan Sweet*
Orleans Reinette
Red Bietigheimer (Roter Stettiner)
Rhode Island Greening*
Ribston Pippin* (struggles with brown rot)
Roter Eiserapfel (Has 47 chromosomes rather than 51)
Roxbury Russett*
Shoëner Von Boskoop
Stäfner Rosenapfel( Has 48 chromosomes)
Stayman Winesap*
Summer Rambo*
Tom Putt
Transcendent Crab
Transparente Blanche
Vixin Crab
White Astrachan*
Winter Pearmain
Washington Strawberry

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Orchards and Slavery on the Rappahannock

I’ve been looking for established connections like this ever since I started to see the connection between old silk trees and the enslaved people who cultivated them.

American Orchard

Between May 13 and May 23, 2013, I co-taught a study tour of Civil War battlefields with a colleague. While this was the sixth time I have offered this study tour for undergraduate students, I decided at the outset that I would use this opportunity to gather information about orchards on Civil War battlefields.  I was aware of the “famous” peach orchard where many men died on the field at Gettysburg, and was aware of a few other references to battlefield orchards, but was surprised at the abundance of information I uncovered on the eleven day trip.  This is the second in a series of blog posts on battlefield orchards.

Chatham Manor today. Before the Civil War, this was the back of the house, with the front yard overlooking the Rappahannock. Chatham Manor today. Before the Civil War, this was the back of the house, with the front yard overlooking the Rappahannock.

Chatham Manor sits on the north bank of the Rappahannock River, on a high bluff overlooking the City of…

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The Passing of C. Lee Calhoun: Southern Apple Hunter

It is with a heavy heart to report the passing of C. Lee Calhoun, Southern apple hunter.

Lee Calhouon Horne Creek

Lee Calhoun at Horne Creek Historical Farm

In March of 2009, while living on an un-bridged island in Maine, I was struck by an instant and permanent passion for apples. When I came out to my family that I wanted to be an apple orchardist, my Grandmother wrote me back and said: Did you know that we have a family apple? Your great-great-great-grandfather, JA Dula, whom you are doubly related, was a famous North Carolina orchardist of his era. Our apple is called the Dula Beauty.

Immediately after reading this, I googled “Dula Beauty” and the only descriptor I could find was a snippet from the Book “Old Southern Apples,” by Creighton Lee Calhoun. I was too poor to buy the book at the time, so I found Lee’s phone number and gave him a call for the full description. He answered, asked me to give him a moment to pull out his notes, and started to tell me everything he knew about the Dula Beauty apple and where I could find it.

Lee graduated from NC State with a degree in agronomy and plans to become a plant breeder, but the Korean war had different plans for him and he joined the army soon after graduation. Though the army soon made a career man out of him, he couldn’t shake his passions to get back to farming. The day he retired, he bought a chainsaw and started clearing a site for a house and orchard in Pittsboro, NC.

Once his Japanese-style house was built, he shared with his elderly neighbor that he wanted to plant a few apple trees. This conversation sparked the neighbor to share with him that he had once had a Magnum Bonum apple growing in his childhood home, and he’d sure love to find another to plant at his house. Finding the Magnum Bonum was the sort of challenge that got Lee’s wheels turning. How many old apple cultivars were still out there? Little did he know at the time, the tradition of Southerners growing apples was quickly disappearing from the landscape and he had been tagged to help keep it alive.

Apples were once grafted onto seedlings or roots as a means of propagation, which gave them a lifespan of around 100 years in the South if the vines were kept out of the trees. In the 70s, Lee realized these trees were aging out, as were the people who knew the names and stories of these trees and the window to find them was quickly closing. From there, he and his wife, Edith, devised a plan to go find what they could: They would buy ads in the rural electric cooperative newspapers across the South and see what people knew of the old apples in their landscape.

This plan worked. Soon, Lee and Edith were getting calls and letters from all over the place with apple names they’d never heard of like “Notty P,” “Crow’s Egg,” and Early Joe.” Excited for the adventure and exploration, they hopped in the truck and took off. As they gained more fruit exploring experience, they developed more parameters for apple hunting which they called “signs of elderly people.” If there was an apple tree, a clothes line with laundry hanging on it, and an old car somewhere on the property, they would stop and knock on the door. Lee told stories of pulling into these driveways to find an elderly man skinning a muskrat on the porch, or a man whittling a wooden duck for his great-grandson which he planned to give him on his 100th birthday, which was only 3 days away.

My favorite Calhoun cold knock story came when I asked him if he knew of any apple varieties that were used to feed hogs. He snorted and then he told me about the time when he pulled into a driveway next to a doughnut factory. The man who answered the door said he’d gladly take Lee to the tree in the backyard, and grabbed a large stick on his way out the door to keep the pigs back, because the apple tree was located in a pig paddock. When looking at the tree, Lee asked if the pork was good from eating all of these apples. The man smirked and hollered in to his wife to make a couple ham biscuits for Lee. Once back to the house, Lee sunk his teeth into the ham biscuit and it was the best he ever had. “This is what apple fed pork tastes like?!” He questioned/exclaimed. “Nope,” the old man replied. “That’s what doughnut fed pork tastes like.”

It took Lee and Edith two years to find the Magnum Bonum that his elderly neighbor first mentioned from his childhood. With each find, each letter, each phone call, a world of apples unfolded. Through the grapevine, he was finding other people who were also looking for and propagating these apples. People like Joyce Neighbors of Alabama, Jim Lawson of Georgia and Tom Burford of Virginia. People catching on to Lee and Edith’s work were contacting Lee wanting to take part in the hunt, too. Soon, Lee and Edith had a network and a lifeblood to go rescue these lost apple cultivars from the throws of nature and human development/axe. Over that decade, Lee and Edith had acquired nearly 400 apple cultivars from across the South. They grafted these trees to dwarfing rootstock and started one of the first high density apple orchards in the South, if only to hold their large repository in a small space. They also started a fruit tree nursery where they custom grafted these apple varieties from their home, located on Black Twig Road.

In the 90s, Lee and Edith wrote the book “Old Southern Apples” cataloging all of the apples they found and all of the apple cultivars they believe to be threatened or extinct. I never got to know Edith, as she had died of pancreatic cancer a few years before I found Lee. However, Lee would never start a story about the book without telling me that Edith wrote that book. She typed the whole thing. Edited it. Gave insights to Lee on what to say. He would also tell me that she could bake an apple pie in her sleep, as she had to try each and every apple in their orchard in pie form to see if one of the old uses could be for pies.

Which leads me to tell you about the gargantuan amount of research and work that went into each apple find. Lee and Edith traveled far and wide to find old nursery catalogs, books, flyers, and articles describing these apples and their uses. These descriptions, aside from their elderly caretakers, were all they had left in terms of what these apples were used for. Dried apples. Pies. Molasses/Syrup. Fresh eating. Winter storage. Dumplings. Hard cider. Vinegar. And the list goes on. Edith and Lee were at the helm of running a home lab to try and bring back a purpose for these apples.


We’re all eating “Tony,” one of Lee’s most resilient apples.

In 2015, I traveled to Lee’s house for the second time with my friends Pete Halupka and Pete Walton to sit down and drink some hard cider with him. We asked him what the chances of finding old lost Southern cultivars might be in this day and age. He responded, matter of factly, that it is nearly impossible in today’s time. So many pressures endanger an apple tree on the landscape, time being the greatest of all when it comes to old Southern apples. In seeing our fruit explorer hopes being dashed, he quickly amended this statement by saying the chances are nearly impossible of discovering identities of these fruits we find in the landscape, but we may very well still find old apple trees. He also encouraged the exploration of mulberry and other nut trees like pecans, as they are much more long-lived than the apple.

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Lee Calhoun was a member of the North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX) and his contributions went beyond apples, as he was also the one to re-introduce the Silk Hope mulberry to the US fruit world. He would tell me of streets in Chapel Hill lined with old Silk mulberry cultivars and the sleeping mulberry landscape of North Carolina which remained despite the failure of an industry. He also collected old rose cultivars, telling me that most of his rose genetics came from cemeteries throughout the South. He grew plums, peaches, sour cherries, grapes and other fruits at his house as well. Even the mightiest of the mighty fruit explorers fall to wanting to plant a little bit of everything.

The world has lost one incredible fruit explorer, but he seemed content with leaving this earth. A mutual friend of ours, Carl Thomasson, visited Lee on Wednesday at hospice, where he was lucid and grateful to have been given a couple extra victory laps of life after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer 3 years ago.

Lee and Edith are now driving down old country roads, spotting apple trees and “signs of the elderly.” Together again, the old truck doors shut and they make their way up the steps of a stranger’s porch. Each knock on the door filled with the thrills of being on the heels of recapturing a piece of history and breathing new life into it.

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Picture from Calhoun’s book “Old Southern Apples”

*Lee’s orchard was nearly destroyed by fireblight in the 2000s. His nursery business was passed to several nurseries, of which David Vernon of Century Farm Orchards and Horne Creek Historical Farm are still active.*

Fun Fact: Creighton Lee Calhoun was the last remaining descendent of John C. Calhoun, founder of Clemson University, and former US vice president.

Lee Calhoun’s List of Cedar Apple Rust Resistant Apples:

American Golden Dorsett


Aunt Rachael

Muskmelon Sweet

Aunt Sally

Old Fashion Winesap

Ben Davis Ophir
Benham Pinky

Bevan’s Favorite

Polly Eades

Black Limbertwig

Pomme Gris

Pound Pippin

Cherryville Black

Red Astrachan

Dixie Red Delight

Red Canada

Dr. Matthews

Red Limbertwig

Fall Orange Red Rebel


Rockingham Red

Gilpin Rusty Coat

Golden Harvey

Sally Gray
Harris Short Core
Honey Cider

Sine Qua Non

Hunge Starr

Summer King


Summer Rambo

Jakes Seedling

John Apple Sweet Russet

June Sweeting

Terry Winter

Keener Seedling


Kinnaird’s Choice

William’s Favorite

Lacy Winter Jon

Lowland Raspberry

Wolf River
Lugar Red

Yellow Transparent



Mulberry Preamble

Old gnarled and twisted mulberry trees.

I have spent the better part of 3 years obsessed with mulberries and their possibilities. It all started with the concept of an everbearing mulberry, which can drop various amounts of mulberries (from a light rain to a canopy downpour) daily for 2-4 months. This journey started with ‘Hicks Everbearing,’ which was known to drop prolific amounts of mulberries for upwards of 4 months in the deep South, and soon transitioned into much, much more. 

I am not really a believer in silver bullets, but after much passion, obsession, discussion and study, I believe mulberries are one of the most versatile and adaptable trees on the planet. This is coming from someone who has devoted a decade of her life to the self-study and research of apples, one of the most adaptable fruits in the world that has strains growing from India to Russia, Alabama to Alaska, Bahamas to Beirut. In my own humble opinion, and facing much sacrilege from 10 years-ago-me, mulberries have a lot more to offer than apples alone, and should be implemented in most agricultural systems world-wide. 

White people have never been good at identifying mulberry species. The common ones found in the Eastern US are Morus rubra, our native ‘red mulberry;’ Morus alba, otherwise known as ‘white mulberry,’ a native to China which was brought over to the US in the 1600s and after; and a hybrid of the two species, rubra x alba, as they readily cross with one another in the wild. It is my current theory that many of the mainstream East Coast botanist of the late 19th/early 20th century tended to mix up M. rubra and M. alba with the hybrids. This can be seen in Liberty Hyde Bailey calling Hicks Everbearing a full Morus rubra, which most certainly is not the case seeing as how it contains smooth shiny leaves and multiple lobes (among other characteristics). It is theorized by A.J Bullard, one of the last remaining mulberry experts in this country hailing from Mt. Olive, NC, that all East Coast originating everbearings are rubra x alba hybrids. I tend to agree with this theory due to the rampant hybridization between asian cultivars and our native red that has been happening for 400 years here in the US. To hammer home this point, a study of isolated and endangered populations of Morus rubra in Canada revealed that 53% of these isolated stands were comprised of hybrids. That’s in Canada! No doubt, the further South you go into North America where the native rubra ranges expand, as do the silk prospecting regions, the number of hybrids will increase. Point being: I think the horticultural greats, guys like Andrew Jackson Downing and Liberty Hyde Bailey, were given hybrids as baselines for their botanical keys. Meaning, I think the large majority of mulberries we have in the US today are hybrids and very few are strictly Morus alba (which people term as invasive…even though they have been here as long as white people have). Also, if you do much research on certain cultivars, you’ll find a huge amount of copying what the person before them said. Not a whole lot of original American thoughts have occurred in the mulberry realm.

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While everbearings and other fruiting mulberries are amazing when thinking about them for human and livestock fodder, there’s another aspect to mulberries that shouldn’t be overlooked: the leaves. Mulberry trees have been in cultivation for 4000+ years in Asia for the exclusive harvest of their leaves, which they use to feed silkworms. This is the oldest form of agroforestry in the world. Silkworms are monogastric wee beasties that are quite sensitive to what they eat. They have different needs throughout their different life stages and Asian cultures have selected certain mulberry genetics and combined these genetics with harvesting strategies to feed these silkworms exactly what they need to thrive and produce high quality silk. It’s all incredibly complicated, but silk is worth it. 

So worth it, that the US has been struck with a get-rich-quick scheme for silk TWICE in it’s infantile history. Once in the early 17th century when King James I tried to encourage silk production in the colonies, first using the abundant native red mulberry (M. rubra) and then mandating each landowner plant 6 mulberry trees a year for 7 years from M. alba stock sent over from England. Once tobacco was discovered to prosper in the Southern soils and the crown and colonists got a hankering for nicotine, the cultivation and excitement of mulberries faded out. To this day, in and around Williamsburg, some of these old 17th century cultivated silk mulberry trees (M. alba) still exist. Two centuries later, the silk craze struck again- this time having Americans consumed with the planting of “Morus multicaulis,” an Asian strain of white mulberry (M. alba) known for its silkworm rearing (Multicaulis= many stems, a hat-tip to the pruning used in the cultivation of mulberry leaves). Conventions were held all across the East Coast with arousal and promises of employment and riches, the first in Baltimore in 1822 . Gardens, fields and highly productive farmland were planted to the gold-producing tree with hopes of getting filthy rich. New Jersey had the most M. multicaulis cultivation, followed by Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and further South.  For a variety of reasons, all of this prospecting came crashing down in 1841, with millions of trees in the Mid-Atlantic and beyond remaining on the landscape- flowering, fruiting and hybridizing more than ever with our native populations (and creating a large hive of everbearing genetics). These trees, comprised of Asian genetics meant to feed silkworms, have leaf protein contents equal to or higher than alfalfa, only they are more digestible by livestock and more nutrient rich due to their roots plunging deep into the soil. These defunct orchards could have helped to feed livestock (pigs, chickens, cattle, goats, sheep) without a problem, yet this alternative to feeding silkworms was never acted upon. To this day, Asian mulberry trees from the 17th and 19th centuries still sleep in the landscape, their lower limbs browsed by deer (who know what’s up). 

It is my goal to assemble the genetics necessary to provide both humans and livestock with nutrient rich, climatically adaptable perennial fodder (fruit and leaves). This includes everbearings and silk cultivars which are cold hardy,  resistant to popcorn disease, able to flourish in the intense heat and humidity of Southeast, able to be grown without chemicals, and the like. Myself and others are hunting our surroundings and the world* for the old, the impressive and the everbearing to offer a diversity of mulberry options for farmers and fruit enthusiasts alike. My mulberry catalog is launching this coming week on (which is currently down for maintenance) and will include a smattering of the above.

*Next year (2020), fellow NAFEX (North American Fruit Explorers) board member Taylor Malone and I will be traveling to China to observe a few mulberry cultivation systems that could potentially benefit fruit and livestock fodder production in the US. We have obtained clearance from the USDA to import 5 cultivars per year from Asia, and will be importing genetics for high quality fodder and fruit. We plan on making this trip part of #thefruitexplorers and will soon be launching a Patreon to help support us in our collection and dissemination of  knowledge for the cultivation of mulberry and other fruits for home and farm (agroforestry, silvopasture, grazing, and livestock-in-orcharad settings). We’re also looking for in-kind help. If you write grants and think you can help us in this multi-year endeavor, we’d love to talk. You can write us at

One Bad Day

This post is about pigs, not apples. 

Often times in the pastured pig world, you’ll hear people refer to their pig’s butcher day as their “one bad day.” This is because these pigs have lived on grass, rooting and running and generally being happy pigs for their entire life, rather than confined indoors in crates the size of a coffins in CAFO-style situations (contained animal feeding operations). The only bad day for my pigs is the one where they go to the butcher. This essay is NOT about all that. This essay is about MY one bad day this year. Yesterday, September 10th, 2019.

For those of you who follow me on social media, you might have gotten a chuckle out of how hard last year was for me to keep pigs contained within their paddocks (which I move regularly). They got out a half-dozen times, with the majority of those escapes happening when trying to load them out of the fields and into a trailer for their butcher date.

The most story-worthy scenario happened when the pigs ignored my attempts to load them and busted out of the fence, nearly making it into a 10,000 square foot wedding tent across the street. I chased behind them in the dark early morning, freshly electrocuted from getting tangled in the electric netting that I did not see and only wearing one boot because the other got stuck in the mud (it was pouring down rain). It took everything I had to sprint and get in front of them, ultimately turning them around and getting them back on the farm.

The memories of not getting pigs loaded out of the fields and missing butcher dates has stuck with me to the point of anxiety for this year’s butcher date. That day was yesterday, and this is the story of my one [really] bad day…

A few days ago, I backed the trailer up to the pig paddock, reorganized the fencing (creating hard walls for loading rather than the normal poultry-style netting) and started feeding them in the trailer. When the day came to load these pigs, I rallied a few friends and used my friend Sara’s truck instead of mine because it has 4 wheel drive and the loaded trailer would need to go across several hundred yards of cow pasture. All went amazing well and the pigs were loaded within 20 minutes, a personal record! We hooked the trailer to Sara’s truck and headed back to the road, where I noticed that some cables had been eaten and the lights were no more. Because of this, we decided to delay taking the pigs that night and instead take the pigs to the butcher in the morning, after I had gotten some temporary lights on the trailer.

Fast forward to yesterday morning with lights that work and a trailer full of pigs.  I got up early, sang to the dogs that I’d be back in a couple hours for a nice long walk, and skipped out the door. Sara had suggested I use her truck to take them to the butcher since it already had the trailer hitched to it, and I thanked her for the suggestion. Off I went…

8 miles away from the butcher, on Interstate 70 in Maryland, the truck started to lose power. I thought to myself: If I could just get to the butcher and unload these pigs, all will be much more easily handled. 3 miles from the butcher, and 30 minutes from the deadline to bring in the pigs, the engine light came on and I pulled over as much as I could, cars whizzing by at 80 miles an hour only inches away. The electronics on the dash read: TRANSMISSION.

I screamed a string of curse words, watching my happy productive day flash before my eyes, and called GEICO.

The GEICO lady, whose name I do not remember,  should get an award for best performance “out of her comfort zone.” Pigs in a trailer attached to a truck that doesn’t belong to me that won’t move. She worked really hard to finally break it to me that, turns out (she must have called 15 tow companies), it is near impossible to get a tow company to tow a trailer full of livestock anywhere. Even if it’s 3 miles away. She could, however, tow the truck back to it’s home location. Deal.

I then texted farmer friends Andrew and MK of Open Book Farm to see if they knew of anyone who could help me in the area. Andrew, a wonderful man and livestock farmer, told me that he had invisioned this for himself before and it was his worst nightmare.  He would come get me and the trailer full of pigs.

Meanwhile, the tow truck had showed up and the tow guy was in a bad mood. He pointed out the trailer had a recent flat (probably from driving on the side of the road and hitting glass) and when I asked for him to help me fix it, he started in on how that was not part of the protocol. I warned him that I was about to start crying and his attitude got a little better, no doubt to avoid having to console me in some way.

Soon thereafter, Andrew showed up and we decided to try limping along for the remaining 3 miles with only one good tire on the right side of the trailer. We hitched up and made it, 3 hours after I first had to pull over. The butcher accepted my more-than-late deposit of pigs and they unloaded like champs. I left the trailer at the butcher’s shop because there was no way I could get it 40 miles back home.

Andrew brought me back to his and Mk’s farm and Sara then came to pick me up and take me home. On our ride back, the mechanic called. He had gotten a chance to take a look at the truck and the transmission was blown. $3500-$3700 in repair costs.

Folks, we are in need of some meat sales in order to afford these truck repairs/another truck that can host a snow plow.

Beef: <— Click Here for Sara’s website

Sara is an amazing beef cattle farmer who is the 10th generation to reside on her family land in Northern VA, Oakland Green Farm. She has 4 cows going to the butcher next month and needs to sell some sides to help pay for the blown transmission. If you are in the Northern Virginia area, or en route from Northern VA to Hampton Roads, I can deliver beef to you: A whole side or by the cut (cut minimum is $100). More info about her cuts and sides can be found HERE.  Beef sides are $4.50 a pound hanging weight plus processing and Hagerstown is where you’d pick it up (unless you contract me to deliver to you)

Pork: <— Click here to buy salami on

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Salami: Price: $17.50 for 6 ounces of dry-cured goodness. Use promo code TRANSMISSION for free shipping on 2 or more. This stuff is delicious, no lie. Now that the weather is cooling off and I’ve blown a friend’s transmission, I’m ready to ship these cured salamis to your door. My HogTree salamis are ‘Cacciatore’- a traditionally cured American-made Italian recipe. It is nitrate free and the ingredient list is as follows:

HogTree Pastured Non-gmo Pork. Salt. Dried Milk Powder. Celery Powder. Dextrose. Vitamin C. White Pepper. Garlic Powder. Fermentation Starter Culture. Natural Pork Casing.

Sara and I will be collaborating on a half pork/half beef Spanish Style Chorizo in the next month as well. This will also be available online in early November.

Pork Cuts: I am primarily selling cured bacon, ribs, pork chops and sausage (assorted flavors). This is pick-up only or delivered en route between Northern VA and Southeastern VA (but try me. I drive all over the place). Pick up by appointment only.

Everyone in the Frederick MD area: Go shop at Open Book Farm’s on-farm store on Saturday mornings and support really amazing people who grow nutrient dense food and saved me big time!





Behold the Graft-Chimera!

It has been a while since I’ve posted anything on this blog and that’s not to say I haven’t been writing (I’ve been writing quite a bit and getting extremely (and excitedly) nerdy). However, my 1000 word essays have been in short supply and I thought I’d throw one up on the blog today. It is inspired by the amazing Jack Kertesz of Maine, who shared this photo with the Maine Tree Crops Alliance  last week:


Same branch.
Same tree.
Two distinctly different apples. (Calyx, stem, skin, fruit shape, flavor, etc)

This was one of those WOW moments for me because I don’t ever see this sort of thing.  No, the yellow/green apples aren’t unripe versions of the red apples. Nor are they a more pale version of the other. This is something special and when I first saw it, there were three possible scenarios for what this was:

1.) Bud Sport. Not a typo for the epic Jean Claude Van Damme movie. A bud sport it’s basically a chance mutation of a single bud on a tree that produces a different looking fruit.  Sometimes this bud turns into a branch that produces apples double the size of the others on the tree. Sometimes a red delicious apple tree produces a branch of black apples…

black diamond apple.jpg

No, I don’t think what Jack found is a bud sport, as two distinctly different kinds of apples are coming out of the same bud. We won’t venture down this rabbit hole, however I do plan to write more about bud sports in the future. They are fascinating!

2.) Top-Grafting. This is one of my favorite methods of grafting because it allows you to graft one or unlimited cultivars of fruit onto an existing tree of the same genera (ish). I made a quick video of how to do this with Bradford Pear:

However, if everything goes correctly, you still wouldn’t end up with a tree producing two different apples from the same bud on a branch.

3.) THE GRAFT-CHIMERA!  OMG. I’ve been waiting to find one of these! I had first learned about this crazy concept  when reading about the rediscovery of the citrus fruit cultivar ‘Bizzaria’. The gist of the story is this: Back in the 1600s, a Florentine gardener named Pietro Nati discovered a citrus fruit tree  that was growing three different fruits.  One fruit was the sour orange, which was from the rootstock’s genetics. The next fruit was the citron, which had been grafted onto the sour orange and was of the scion’s genetics. A third fruit was growing from this stem, which appeared to be a complete meld of the two fruits. The scientific community at the time, perplexed, fittingly named this fruit ‘Bizzaria.’ This branch was grafted in gardens all over the place and, amazingly, the chimera held true.


Bizzaria Fruit- half sour orange, half citron

Centuries later, the concept of having 2 or more distinctly different fruits emerging from one stem was revealed to be a graft-chimera, a botanical phenomenon where the cells of the rootstock and the cultivar being grafted get wrapped up together in a single branch and both traits are exhibited.  Sometimes, like with the case of Bizzaria, a 50:50 fruit also emerges. How this happens can be boiled down fairly simply thanks to a German botanist named Hans Winkler.

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Winkler was fascinated with the idea of graft-chimeras and began to experiment with how this sort of thing could come about and happen more regularly. How could he cause two different cultivars of fruit/vegetables/flowers to come out of the same bud? Instead of using apples for his experimenting, which take years to produce fruit, he used tomatoes and other graft-compatible nightshades (I’ll use eggplant for this essay, though it may not be historically correct) to conduct his experiments because they looked completely different in fruit and leaf.

The experiment goes like this: He grafted a tomato cultivar to an eggplant rootstock and when the graft was well healed and the plant established, he cut the graft union in half so the rootstock/scion union had exposed cut tissue.  He watched these cuts callous over and develop adventitious buds (new buds that arise from calloused tissue) grow. If a bud arose from the eggplant portion, it was an eggplant. If it arose from the tomato portion, it was a tomato.  If it arose from the graft union, it was a n Eggplato, composed partly of eggplant and partly of tomato. Essentially, two different species present within the same stem!

20190907_232857.jpgTurns out, this little experiment from Winkler is highly replicable and he was able to show how such branches can arise incidentally from normal grafting methods. The genetics and botanical world should have gone crazy at this time, experimenting with these concepts and producing serious Frankenfruit. But, like many cool experiments uncovered from the last century or more, they never picked up steam.

Two varieties on same tree

Back to Jack! And apples!

When I asked for more pictures, especially of the trunk, they sent this one over to me:70440750_2423351177877972_14148004525113344_o.jpg

After seeing the picture, I think there are two possible scenarios for this graft-chimera.

1.) The tree’s graft union was buried and suckers came about from the union, producing chimeras.

1.5) The tree was mowed/driven over at the graft union and what came up was the graft-chimera

2.) The tree’s graft union was buried and some low-down injury occurred (weed eater?), causing a deep enough cut around the tree to reveal both rootstock and scion tissue. Up from that came these chimeric shoots.

Regardless, I think this ability to meld two cultivars into a single stem is very cool and somewhat witchy. I definitely want to experiment more with this concept in the future and I don’t know why more hasn’t been done with this concept. Maybe it has and I’m unaware, but I have found that some ornamental cultivars, especially the variegated types, came about as graft-chimeras.


Sidenote: I find it fitting that Winkler coined the term ‘Genome.’ How did he do it? Much like the Bizzaria fruit being half citron and half sour orange, he combined the words ‘Gene’ and ‘Chromosome’ together to get ‘Genome,’ lol.


  3. STOUT, A. B. (1920). A GRAFT-CHIMERA IN THE APPLE. Journal of Heredity, 11(5), 233–237.