A Heirloom Apple Event
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October 2013 Produce Parable
By Adam Calder

In early October, Seed Savers Exchange celebrated the diversity of apples with “Forgotten Tastes: An Heirloom Apple Event.” The event was hosted at Grade A Gardens, an organic farm in Johnston.

More than two hundred people attended the event, and stuck it out through the 40 degree, rainy weather that day. There were over 50 varieties of heirloom apples the likes of which most people have never seen. Belle de Boskoop, Cockle Pippin, Ebenezer Lambkin, Hubbardston Nonsuch, No-Blo, Zuccalmaglio's Reinette; I tasted them all. From the aptly named Knobbed Russet, a delicious bumpy brown thing to the disgusting soapy tasting Monarch, each apple had its own character and story to tell.

Telling that story was Dan Bussey, and apple expert who has works with Seed Savers. He has a zeal for apples, also the likes of which most people have never seen, and his passion for them is infectious when you listen to him speak of the history of heirloom apples. Through the gently drizzle of the rain and with Cousin Eddy music softly playing in the background, Bussey preached the wonders of apples.

“When it comes to apples, there's everything under the sun when it comes to color, shape, size, texture, flavor” Bussey said, “I've spent close to 30 years cataloging all the different varieties I've seen growing in North America from the 1600's to modern times, and the number now is over 25,000 that have been grown in this country. I wonder where they are all at this time, and unfortunately many of them have been lost. But when I see homesteads with this one single lovely apple tree thats maybe 100 years old, those are just those little gems that pop up every now and then that may be the lost variety we're looking for. My mission is to try to preserve all the different genetic diversity in the varieties of apples.”

Bussey takes his mission seriously, as he has been working away at the orchard and building the bank of genetic diversity within it.

“Today we brought 60 apples, just under 10% of the total apple variety at Seed Savers orchard” Bussey said, “The initial planting of the seed savers orchard was a little over 500 varieties. They were put on a dwarf stock called P22 from Poland. Its a dwarfing tree that will get 6-8 feet tall. One thing about dwarfing stock is that its precocious, it grows fast. When I came on two years ago I started with 550 varieties. Since I've been there the collection has grown to close to 1,000. Right now in this country there are probably 5,000 varieties of apples you can still get to grow. We have lost a huge amount of genetic diversity, which is unfortunate.”

When pressed for advice on how to pick the perfect apple, Bussey had some to give.

“Not all apples do everything” Bussey said, “They all cook pretty well, but as far as a good eating apple, its what you like. There's a difference in cultural awareness of apples as well. In some European countries flat apples are considered poor. In this country we like bright shiny reds and yellow colors. You have to get past what it looks like to try it.”

He also had one final message, one meant to be taken to heart lest we loose all of these heirloom apples due to the whims of consumer demand.

“We eat with our eyes,” Bussey said, “That means if it looks good, we think it tastes good. I want you all to get past that.”


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