Cider And Heirloom Apple Vigor: An Hypothesis

Recently, I was on the phone with a mentor and we were discussing hedgerows (my new pet project, aside from brewing all sorts of alcohol). With some of the species I mentioned, I was told that livestock would eat them down to nothing and render the hedgerow useless. After having a few tree species rejected, I frustratingly asked: “What if I planted my hedgerows with invasives like multi-flora rose, then?!”

Without any hesitation, my mentor said: “Invasives like multi-flora rose are very delicious to many animals, like my goats.  You might be suggesting invasive plants for your hedgerow because they are vigorous and seem to outcompete everything else, but try to think about vigor from another perspective. If plants with high vigor are also the most sought after by animals, don’t you think that vigor might be an evolutionary trait to survive browse?”

This is the first time I’ve heard this perspective on invasives and I’ve really enjoyed thinking about it. After some minimal research, I found out that the subject is still debated today by ecologists as the “plant vigor hypothesis.” Generally speaking, vigorous plants have higher nutrient densities than non-vigorous plants, so herbivores are more prone to eat them. However! If the very vigorous cultivars are able to put on a bunch of girth, many herbivores aren’t able to eat the whole thing because of their jaw size.

This, of course, has got me thinking about apples. Here’s why.

In many essays on this blog, I’ve talked about how I consider many cider and heirloom cultivars to be very vigorous as compared to most of the grocery store cultivars. Vigorous cultivars are harder to prune, occupy more space (so less trees per acre), have issues with vegetative vs fruit bud proportions, etc. In general, they are harder to grow.  After reading more about this “plant vigor hypothesis,” I wonder if there is a connection between vigor and nutrient density in apples cultivars?

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From an evolutionary standpoint, a correlation between vigor and nutrient density makes sense to me. Many wild crab apples in the US have much higher tannins (aka polyphenols, which =nutrition density) than cultivated varieties. This is from the many lifetimes spent co-evolving with insects and herbivores who are trying to eat them. From observing crabapples in the “wild” and planted in landscapes, it seems as if many trees have low vigor and perhaps this is because they have evolved to have an unpalatable deterrence for animals and humans alike?

In hard cider, many of the wild crabs are too much for our palates to handle and though very nutritious, they will cause a harsh and likely negative consumer experience. So what have we done? Over time, cider drinkers/makers/apple growers have selected cultivars to grow which are palatable to the consumer, but also contain enough tannins (or polyphenols, or natural defense) to give the cider some substance.  Could it be that in selecting not-so-astringent apple cultivars for eating/drinking, we’re unknowingly selecting for more tree vigor? If the apple cultivar hasn’t evolved enough to deter herbivores through astringent taste, then do genetics dictate that it must rely on vigor to survive? 

These sorts of questions make me excited and I’ll keep learning about these processes in order to try and uncover different management ideas that don’t involve regulating vigor through the use of dwarfing rootstocks, black magic hormonal potions like Apogee (which converts vegetative buds into fruiting buds), and planting in light soils. All of those management aspects, I suspect, are making the vigorous cultivars less vigorous/more fibrous/less nutrient dense.

Thoughts to be continued, but in the meantime here are a few off the top of my head:

Thought 1: Pruning extremely vigorous varieties like an herbivore in order to get faster fruit set?

Thought 2: Continuing to fruit explore to find mixes of wild x cultivated which hit high nutrient densities, palatability, and lower vigor.  (I’m writing a fruit exploring book about how to do this at the moment)

Thought 3: Making crabapples a significant part of my home breeding program.

 

 

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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.

basic information young farmers should know about me

My name is Eliza Greenman and I’m an heirloom and cider apple farmer in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwestern Virginia. I believe in opening up about the following information and I wish more farmers would do the same. Let’s get rid of the smoke and mirrors, eh?

  • Age: 30 (until December)
  • Businesses: I own an apple tree nursery business called Legacy Fruit Trees (it’s my first year). Other than that, my future orchards are still in my nursery or have yet to be grafted.
  • Do I come from a farming family? No. I come from the [now] suburbs of Southeastern Virginia. My Grandparents once lived on a farm, but they were forced to sell it to the city because of its prime location. They also didn’t farm for a living.
  • Do I come from “family money?” For US standards, I would consider my upbringing to be that of middle class.  No trust funds, no direct inheritance, no secret piles of money that I know of.
  • Do I have a family of my own?  No kids. No husband. No boyfriend right now (I’ve been too busy to date). I had a dog but that’s a story for another post.
  • Do I own land? Nope, sure don’t.  I’m involved in a series of creative arrangements that basically work out to being a long-term lease. I will talk about this in full later. It’s a long story.
  • Do I have an off-farm job? Technically, no. I live and work on a farm that is home to a hard cider company. I manage their hard cider orchards 2 days a week, which amounts to around $850/month. Lots more to come regarding that relationship.
  • Did I go to college?   Yes, I went to a 4 year university and earned a BS degree in Forestry.
  • Did I graduate with student loans? I graduated with $20,000 in student loans and managed to pay them off last year (2013).  $10,000 of those loan repayments came from Americorp’s Educational Award.

Ok, I think that’s a start in transparency. Any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. I solemnly swear to be as honest as possible in this blog.