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! 

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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 Elizapples.com 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*
Baldwin*
Belle De Boskoop
Blenheim Orange
Bramley’s Seedling
Buckingham*
Bulmers Norman
Canadian Reinette
Catshead
Close
Crimson Bramley
Crimson King
Crispin
Dula Beauty*
Fallawater*
Fall Pippin*
Frösåker
Genete Moyle
Golden Reinette von Blenheim
Gravenstein*
Hausmuetterchen
Hurlbut
Husmodersäpple
Jonagold
King David*
King of Tompkins County
Lady Finger
Leathercoat*
Margille
Morgan Sweet*
Mutsu
Orleans Reinette
Paragon*
Red Bietigheimer (Roter Stettiner)
Rhode Island Greening*
Ribston Pippin* (struggles with brown rot)
Roter Eiserapfel (Has 47 chromosomes rather than 51)
Rossvik
Roxbury Russett*
Shoëner Von Boskoop
Spigold
Stäfner Rosenapfel( Has 48 chromosomes)
Stark
Stayman*
Stayman Winesap*
Summer Rambo*
Suntan
Tom Putt
Transcendent Crab
Transparente Blanche
Vilberie
Vixin Crab
White Astrachan*
Winterzitronenapfel
Winter Pearmain
Washington Strawberry

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Fruit Exploring: Hunting the Vermont Beauty

Today I ate 6 pears, 11 apples. I tasted 14 pears, 24 apples. I managed to drop off apples at my rendezvous point on time for the delivery guy, and all else after that meeting at noon went down hill. Tis the season to be perpetually late to appointments/meetings due to the abundance of fruit on the roadside.  Also: Tis the season for elevated fiber consumption and trying to deal with it.

I’ve wanted to write a blog post about fruit exploring for ages now, as it is an exciting and integral part of my fruit life. Today’s essay will only be a brief glimpse, as I am writing a book on the subject at the moment. But I wanted to take a moment to tell you about my Tuesday.

Earlier this year, I was putting away the “Pears of New York” book by U.P Hedrick and had this impulse to open it and look at one of the colored plates. When I opened it, the pear I landed on was called “Vermont Beauty.” I’m right across the lake from Vermont and one of the orchards I work with is in Vermont, so I decided to read on…

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From this book, I learned that this pear was a seedling planted out by Benjamin Macomber of Grand Isle, VT…an island in Lake Champlain. I currently live across the street from Lake Champlain! So, I got to hunting. The first step in fruit exploring is research, which occupied an entire Sunday. After having an idea of where to look for this pear, I called my good Vermont friend Meg Giroux and we went fruit exploring for this pear over Memorial Day Weekend.

Fruit exploring involves a lot of cold-knocking. “Hi. My name is Eliza; I’m a fruit preservationist and I have a story to tell you [insert story for specific fruit]…. Do you know if you have any fruit trees on your property?” That is the usual gist of my approach, full of smiling and excitement. Only once, in Georgia, have I been turned away…

We were looking for the remnants of an old 40-acre orchard we discovered through a local Georgia historian who knew a lot about peaches, brandy and a particular Southern family’s plantation drama/legacy. Thanks to his directions, we were right in the epicenter of where the orchard once was and we decided to go door to door knocking, seeking permission to check out the apple trees possibly growing on their property. We knocked on one door and the people were obviously home, just not answering. I left a message on their car about why we were there, how we’d love to look at their orchard (which is the only remnant we could find of the once 40 acre orchard), and my contact information. I got a call later that day: “Hai, I’m lookin’ for Elyyyzuh. My husban’ tol me to call yew and tell yew that yew are not welcome on our properteee.” After I tried to tell her that we were only interested in their apple trees, she kept interpreting/spitting condemning words for her husband, who I could hear in the background.

Upset and saddened by their isolationist/paranoid ways, I wrote the pastor of their church (because we previously talked with the home owner’s mother who told us they belonged to the church on the hill) and asked the pastor to preach a lesson on “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2). And then proceeded to tattle on the couple, because if anyone knows me well, you know that I have band of “angels unawares” by my side.

Anyways, back to Vermont. After knocking on every single door we thought might have a property with fruit trees attached to it, we were given wide-spread permission to look around. We found an old, old pear. An old old apple. Another old property with an old pear and apple, etc. And after finding a map from the 1800s, we found an old, old apple orchard. Excited, I promised myself to go back in the fall when they had fruit. AND BOY DO THEY HAVE FRUIT.

This story will be about the first pear tree we found, which I checked first with fingers crossed in hopes that the fruit wasn’t an early season ripener. Luckily, it wasn’t and the tree was loaded with fruit which had just decided to start dropping (!).

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I had every hope back on Memorial Day that this might be the Vermont Beauty. And, well, it may be. An extension agent recently told me that cooler temperatures instigate better color in fruit. With the downright hot fall we’ve had up until a few days ago, that could be a reason for the lack of color on this pear. Otherwise, it seems to match up decently well with the description found in “Pears of New York.” The flavor is sweet, very fine grained, has potential to be buttery-melty in the mouth once it has been given a chance to fully ripen off the tree.  I might be overly hopeful, but…

I stopped at three other properties on Tuesday, each one tied for having the oldest pear trees I’ve ever seen. Here’s one of the trunks (shoe for scale, it was completely hollowed out and probably close to 4 feet in diameter)…

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And you know what? ALL OF THE PEARS ARE THE SAME KIND!!!  They all taste the same (minus some minor soil differences); They all have that light blush on them; They all have the same shape.

I’ve since done some background research of these properties and they line up with my research as having a connection with Benjamin Macomber, the cultivator of the “Vermont Beauty.” I can’t reveal this connection just yet because it’s a chapter in my book, but just trust me for the time being that they are all connected. The rest is left to old books with descriptions so I can try to key this pear out. The trouble is finding an adequate description of it!  If in fact this is the “Vermont Beauty,” I have just found a lost variety. In order to save it, no matter what it is, all property owners have given me permission to take cuttings this winter from their trees. We might never know the name, but it has proven itself to be resilient for at least 100 years (I think closer to 200), and that is worth saving and propagating.

I hope to graft this tree this year. Some of you might ask for scionwood, which is quite alright with me, but my team and I have been trying to come up with a way to both spread the goods and retain some funding for our future fruit exploring missions.  With that said, the proceeds of this scionwood and future tree sales will go into #thefruitexplorers research fund. We poor-yet-passionate heirloom/resilient fruit nerds will ask that every propagation of this pear (or anything else we find) will spur an on-your-honor royalty donation on our soon-to-be website…and that it’s story be passed on to the new owner (who, if they decide to propagate, will carry on with the royalty donation).

Stay tuned, we have found some amazing specimens this year and there are more to come (we have loads of self-funded research that, of course, costs money). Already, we’ve found a Southern bittersweet crabapple out of Alabama which I think could be the next great Southern cider apple, showing awesome pest and disease resistance. Pending is to see if it has an annual bearing tendency.  Another is a gorgeous, insect and disease resistant (from what I can tell) “sweet” apple that lacks acidity, which Benjamin Watson touts as a great ingredient to blend with high acidity/sugar American heirlooms. Many more…we just need to get our acts together, which is a winter task.

Thoughts? Would love to hear.

Workshops in NY! Come one, come all (until spots fill up)

The Home Orchard: a series of workshops with Eliza Greenman

May 9th: Fruit Tree Topworking Workshop!

Imagine a single apple tree in the spring blooming with a bouquet of white, pink, red and purple flowers. Imagine that same singular tree with red, green, yellow and russeted apples in the fall. That tree is possible to obtain if you learn how to topwork. Come and learn the art and technique of adding different varieties to a tree. On Saturday, May 9th, heirloom and cider orchardist Eliza Greenman will walk you through the steps necessary to change an apple, pear, or hawthorne tree over to something you find more useful to your lifestyle. Whether you want to convert an abandoned orchard over to different varieties, or you are tight on space and want one of your trees to supply great pie apples for every month of the apple season…the learning starts with topworking.

When: May 9th, 3-5pm
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $15 per person. 15 slots available.
What to bring: Loppers or hand pruners, sharp knife (a single bevel grafting knife is strongly preferred), gloves
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot: egreenman (at) gmail.com with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

June 6th: Growing Low-Input/Low-Spray Apples for Hard Cider

Cider apples are different from your normal grocery store apples. Not just in variety, but also in management technique. Come take a walk through the orchard with heirloom and cider orchardist Eliza Greenman to learn the basics of good and bad when it comes to growing apples for hard cider. We’ll identify and discuss beneficial insects and cosmetic diseases, concerns and triumphs in the orchard, and tips/tricks to deal with these concerns. The goal of this workshop is to have the participant leave with motivation to experiment, make observations, and join a network of people working to supple and make quality products which do not harm local ecology or the consumer.

When: June 6th: 9-12
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $15 per person. 20 slots available.
What to Bring: Notebook
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot:egreenman (at) gmail.com with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

June 13th: Summer Pruning Workshop Summer

Pruning is a practice and art of addressing vigor in apple and pear trees. When practiced in combination with dormant winter pruning, a tree is able to produce more fruit and have less disease. Come learn the basics of tree vigor, how soils and winter pruning can interact with the vegetative growth of your apple trees, and how to bring the tree back into balance through summer pruning.
When: June 13th: 9-12
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $15 per person. 15 slots available.
What to Bring: Hand pruners, loppers, gloves
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot:egreenman (at) gmail.com  with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

August 8th: Fruit Exploring and Summer Grafting

Learning from the landscape is one of our best tools in combating climate change and forming a more sustainable agricultural future. If you know where to look and what to look for, the landscape transforms itself into a realm of purposeful human legacies and thriving natural adaptations. Fruit Explorer/Orchardist Eliza Greenman will teach you how to track human legacy through trees, select for wild and thriving genetics, and how to propagate it all through summer bud grafting.
When: August 8th: 9-4
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $25 per person. 25 slots available.
What to Bring: Camera, notebook, single beveled knife (grafting knife preferred), footwear and clothing for walking outside, sun protection.
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot:egreenman (at) gmail.com with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

September 19th: Hard Cider 101

This workshop will cover all the basics of making hard cider, from pressing to fermentation. Participants will take home a fermenting kit and a 5 gallon carboy of cider to ferment at home.
When: September 19th: 10-2
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $100 per person. 20 slots available.
What to Bring: Notebook.
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot:egreenman (at) gmail.com with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

Visiting Jim Lawson, the Paul Bunyan of Bench Grafting

I have an apple bucket [bushel box?] list consisting of people and varieties to find before they disappear. Towards the top of my list of people to find has been Mr. Jim Lawson, an 89 year-old nurseryman from Ball Ground, Georgia. He has been credited for finding a slew of old southern apple varieties and his work has been mentioned in books, propagated by nurserymen/women across the South and planted in many, many yards. He has worked as a professional nurseryman and fruit explorer for much of his life and I just had to meet him.

Last month, I tried to go and visit a *very* old man in Illinois to talk about the nut trees on his property and an hour before we were about to leave, I received a text from his daughter telling me that he had taken a turn for the worst and was going to die. Our trip was cancelled and we never had the chance to talk with him, collect his stories, and tell him how much we appreciated him. Still feeling the sting of that last experience, I decided to embark on an impulsive trip to North Georgia to find Jim Lawson because time is running out. I didn’t have his address and my one attempt at calling him produced no answer, so I reached out to my old college roommate (Cam), who lives a town over, and we tracked him down through the local connection. If I had tried, there’s a good chance we could have tracked him down on a basis of apple tree regularity. The closer we got to his place, the more apple trees we saw in the landscape. Pulling up to the front of his nursery building, there was someone looking at us through the window. It was Jim Lawson. We had found him!

Every now and then, I spontaneously show up at someone’s house and the person I’ve set out to talk with is rather skeptical. I’ve never been turned away, but sometimes I’ve had to really work to stay. This did not happen in the slightest with Jim. He was delighted and excited to meet us.

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About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character. -David Brooks, The Moral Bucket List

I feel blessed beyond words (so much so that I had to take David Brook’s words) to run across people like this in my life. They are continual examples and guiding lights for the type of person I want to be. After only spending a few minutes with Jim Lawson, I knew I had added another mentor to my registry of “people I want to be like.” The thought also hit me that if he didn’t live in Georgia, there would be a real chance that sparks would fly with another life mentor of mine, Anna, who lives on an island in Maine. They would be so cute, just the thought makes my heart want to burst!

Throughout the day, people circulated through his nursery building and with each new addition, we would be introduced as his “apple friends.” Most would come in, sit, and listen to Jim tell us stories. Some would offer up a few words but many just sat, content, until the time came when they had to go. Jim was sad when these people got up to leave and made sure to send them along with a genuine expression of how much their visit meant to him and how he hoped to see them again soon.

Jim Lawson, in the overalls, holding Adele's Choice Hard Cider from Mercier's Orchard in GA

Jim Lawson, in the overalls, holding Adele’s Choice Hard Cider from Mercier’s Orchard in GA

We talked about many topics and I’ve decided to write out the highlights rather than type up the stories word for word (they are recorded).

1.) In his hay day, Jim could bench graft (whip and tongue) 1000 trees in a day. For those of you who aren’t versed in the grafting world, this is nothing short of a legendary feat. These days, he only grafts a few trees every now and then because his hands don’t allow him to do much more. I didn’t press him for a number because I fear it’s probably in the hundreds at a time (what I do).

2.) At 89 year old, he wants to learn how to graft walnuts. So much so, that he’s going to join the Northern Nut Growers Association this year to be a part of their network and hopefully learn more.

3.) He has the “Big O” crabapple, which he will let me come and take cuttings from this summer. He knows everyone in the southern apple world and whenever someone would find or breed an interesting variety, they would give him a call. This is how he got the “Big O.” It’s a great keeper (stores for quite a long time).

4.) In addition to the “Big O,” he thought I’d really like to try the Craven crabapple. The Craven was being grown by a man somewhere in the South (again, the exact story with details is voice recorded) and Jim Lawson received some scions of this tree in the mail. He then started to propagate this tree and spread it far and wide though his nursery. Years later, he received a disgruntled letter from the old man who said that he had plans to patent the craven variety and was upset that Lawson had propagated the tree without his permission. Lawson sent him two Craven trees along with an apology and he never heard anything from the man again. Rumor has it, the man’s original tree had died and if it wasn’t for Lawson propagating the tree, it would not currently exist.

Jim Lawson then got up and walked to a back room in his shop. When he emerged, he was holding two shrunken apples: craven. He gave them to me with exclamations of how well they keep and told me to plant out the seed. My old college roommate must have been rather confused to see me get so excited about receiving two in-edible apples. I can’t wait to plant out those seeds!

craven apple

5.) In order to find old varieties, he’d just ask people. If he was driving somewhere, he’d pull over when he saw an old apple tree and knock on the door. It didn’t matter if they had names or not, if the apple was something he had never seen and looked good, he’d take a cutting and name it after the household name or address. Many of these varieties today still don’t have a true name. Sometimes, people would contact him looking for a specific apple variety and he would help to track them down given his local connections. To this day, two varieties elude him (I’ll update later on the names of these). He’s optimistic that they’re still around.

6.) One time, a man bought two of every single tree he had and planted them on a hillside in North GA. These trees have grown seedlings and are now a thriving habitat for deer. He hears from many hunters about how wonderful and appreciative they are for that planting of apple trees.

7.) He prefers to pour apple brandy over his pound cake.

When we were leaving, we gave him a bottle of hard cider from Mercier Orchards. The type of cider was called “Adele’s Choice” and when he received it, he exclaimed “I knew Adele! She would be so happy to know that they put her on a bottle of hard cider. Oh, this just makes me so happy.”

There’s really something to staying put. However does someone with insatiable wanderlust do such a thing?! I guess the answer will one day be (when/if I settle down to a single area): those people with wanderlust will just have to come and find me!

Putting in my notice.

On my one year anniversary here, I put in my notice that I would be leaving by the end of the year.

It’s an exhilarating feeling to put in your notice, there’s a certain thrill when it comes to “what’s next.” At the same time, I’m in mourning. I had so much hope and energy to be here, had told myself that it was going to be a permanent move. I spent all of my savings on erecting a greenhouse and starting a nursery business, taking any security blanket away and throwing me into this crazy world. I have learned many things this year about myself, running a business and working with southern heirloom apple varieties. I had some really awesome days and some days where I felt so miserable that I wanted to just disappear. I have never been more stressed out, sleep deprived or lonely in my life, yet I still thought this was where I needed to be. I attribute this to my often ridiculous love for the trees, which blinds me at times.

When I worked with a very old man in Maine managing his 100 variety orchard, he had me spraying a fungicide on the trees with a wand sprayer as he drove the tractor up and down the rows. Having never sprayed this fungicide before, he assured me that wearing a rain coat was sufficient. I got so much of the fungicide on me that that my skin started to burn intensely and I felt physically ill (vomiting). I was confined to the bed for the remainder of the day and didn’t feel right until about a week later. The smell of this particular fungicide makes me ill to this day, much like certain hard alcohols make others feel after one bad night of overconsumption…you know, our body reminding us to stay the hell away.  I know that I was improperly clothed, but I vowed then and there never to be in a situation where I had to spray anything like that again. I also vowed to never be in a management position where I have someone spray those chemicals.

This is why I decided to head down the cider apple route. As an apple orchardist with an heirloom niche, it was a perfect transition for me to manage trees in a way that I thought would be more responsible for the farmer, the consumer, and the environment. It was a way to grow ugly apples and have them be valued for their flavors and nutritional content rather than their looks. Every tree is different and these old genetics have a thing or two to teach us, so I was excited to learn from the varietal collection here. Over the past year, I have learned a lot from the trees, some subtleties and some big picture items. Enough to have me convinced that I can grow within my own personal/environmental ideologies in order to produce a fantastic and all together healthy product if given the opportunity to keep working with the trees in what is nowadays seen as a careless, ignorant, and improper management approach.

At this time, “This is a business” is not a good enough excuse to get me to spray things I don’t believe are necessary given the goals and objectives. Especially when only 20% of apples in the cider are from the orchard (Aka: Why not use this opportunity to grow apples for cider, since the cider will still be made without them). I can’t concern myself with the now and turn a blind eye to what my impacts might be down the road on this landscape and other people.  That’s not responsible, I can’t let myself spray a tree with pesticides, fungicides, hormones and other chemicals without first knowing what the tree’s genetics and natural associations are capable of producing. Perhaps that is the definition of a radical these days.

Yesterday someone from a University came by the cider house and asked me what I had sprayed earlier that day. I hadn’t sprayed anything. She was smelling the residues left behind from the previous pressing of apples brought in from a conventional orchard. When I had walked past them last week, I could smell fungicide residue from 50 feet away.  Had there been any question, one could just go and look at the dusty film on the apples to confirm suspicions. Apparently this smell can linger 3 days in a parking lot, which is disturbing on a variety of levels.

I’ve been told that I should seek out this conventional dessert fruit orchardist’s advice, the one who delivered the above mentioned apples. I should have him look at my spray schedule in order to help me adjust it and make the right decisions, they said. Perhaps I’m just really naïve or ignorant, but it’s hard for me to believe that this person and I have anything in common other than the fact that we’re growing the same fruit that has more than 7000 known and genetically different varieties.

Eliza is very (might be tragically) wrong, but smart and innocent.”

That’s from an email haphazardly forwarded to me from a person concerned that I didn’t know what I was doing, so they sought out professional advice.

I will be the first person to tell you that I’ve only just begun to trust my gut when it says to go one way rather than another. This has no scientific backing without my ability to explain it in a scientific language, which I’ve only started to do.  I have an understanding of conventional horticulture, but I question many of the processes. I have no idea what is actually the right way to be doing things, given the broad scope of human-caused tragedies. But to be called “tragically wrong” when pushing the envelope… man, that makes me want to defend myself.

And I did. Without hesitation.  I called him up, read him what he wrote, and asked for him to please describe what he meant when he said those things. “You weren’t meant to read that,” he said. I grilled him on what he knew about the soils, the cultivars, the humid temperate rainforest climate in this area… “How could you say those things about me without walking in these shoes, knowing this soil, growing these cultivars? You have never experienced these conditions. In your statements, are you implying that all is universal?” He was upset that I was sent that email. He appeased me, but later called me disrespectful. Which I was, because I stooped to his level. I regret stooping to his level.

After having that confrontational conversation, I made the decision to accept those who will always criticize me and doom me to failure. Hell, in time, I might also find room to love these people because they don’t understand. Maybe they are right. Maybe my work will never amount to anything. But I’m not giving up because these people think this way and have these opinions about me and my work. I’ve only just started and this is my life’s fire.

Deep down inside of me, there is an unexplained energy that propels me forward with all of this and gives me a voice. It’s the same feeling I had 6 years ago when I was up in the tree, learning how to prune for the first time. It’s a purpose, as if every cell in my body thinks I should be doing this. I will keep learning from the landscapes and people around me. I’ll keep following my gut and trying to decipher why it steered me in that particular direction. I’ll do more fruit exploring in order to learn from the trees and the people who planted them 100+ years ago. I’m going to continue to ask hard questions, be insatiably curious, look beyond the orchards for solutions, and convince people to eat cosmetically blemished fruit (#eatuglyapples).

I’m prepared to fail terribly in pursuit of potentially valuable/viable horticulture gains.  With that, I put in my notice.  Lookout, world.

(we set a record this year for harvest, 7 tons per produceable acre. It was a good production year, but that number I just gave you, 7 tons per acre, was the amount we pressed. )