The Illustrated History of Apples in the United States and Canada – Preface by Kent Whealy
The Illustrated History of Apples in the United States and Canada. By Dan Busey, edited by Kent Whealy. Courtesy of JAKKAW Press. September 2016.
Dinner at the Clowning Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg is always boisterously entertaining. In June 1985 I was dining with my friend, the late Robert Becker, being served grog and shepherd’s pie by a young woman dressed in 18th century attire. Robert was an Associate Professor in the Department of Horticultural Sciences at Cornell University and an Extension Specialist in the Geneva (New York) Agricultural Experiment Station. At the time, I was only one decade into my 32-year tenure as the Executive Director of the Seed Savers Exchange. We were both to be speakers the next day at the Annual Meeting of “ALHFAM” (Association of Living Historical Farms and Agricultural Museums), the folks who manage the period and ethnic gardens and farms throughout the U.S. and Canada. Robert and I were coordinating our speeches in a mutual attempt to convince various ALHFAM projects to permanently maintain collections of heritage apples and heirloom vegetables appropriate to their sites. Looking back, our conversation that evening was the genesis of my personal commitment to the preservation of heritage apples.
That evening Robert told me he was quite concerned because Dr. Roger Way’s vast collection of apples was being cut down right then. The staff at the Experiment Station had been told they were welcome to take the resulting firewood. At that time Dr. Way had been the USDA’s Curator for Apples for 35 years, had amassed and authenticated a collection of 1,500 apples, and was keeping two full-size trees of each. USDA was in the process right then of creating its National Clonal Germplasm Repository for Apples and American Grapes, and was compiling an inventory of all the major collections of apples in the U.S. Besides Dr. Way’s collection, there was a planting at the Quarantine Station in Glendale, Maryland containing 1,100 apples that breeders and breeding projects had imported from other countries over the years. Also being inventoried were the collections of apples at all the Plant Introduction Stations. Each state used to have its own Agricultural Experiment Station, so called back then, where varieties of fruits and vegetables were bred specifically for the growers and conditions of their State.
Upon completion, USDA’s inventory identified about 5,000 different apples. USDA’s goal was to develop a virus-free Clonal Repository containing 2,500 varieties, about half of the available cultivars, to supply the needs of apple breeders into the future. Cuttings of each apple variety selected for inclusion by Dr. Way were being “heat treated” and screened for viruses in order to produce virus-free stock for planting into a permanent repository there in Geneva. Cuttings were forced at high temperatures to grow quickly, so quickly that the tips of the shoots actually outgrow the viruses within them. Tip cuttings were then taken and re-grown to be tested for any remaining viruses and, depending on those results, were either declared virus-free or were regrown for retesting. Dr. Phil Forsline, curator of the clonal repository, told me that he thought it would take 8 to 10 years to complete the process for all 2,500 varieties. Our conversation was in 1987 and the project was about half completed at that time.
A holding orchard had been developed in Geneva that included Dr. Way’s apple collection. Two trees of each variety had been grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks, before his collection of 1,500 apples was cut down. Similarly, the Glendale collection of 1,100 cultivars at the Quarantine Station was also grafted onto two dwarf rootstocks in Geneva, before that collection was also cut down. In addition, other varieties selected by Dr. Way had been brought into the holding orchard from the Agricultural Experiment Stations in many of the States, as were his selections from several large private apple collections.
The user group for the USDA’s Clonal Repository was to be apple breeders, so the selected collection was weighted heavily with varieties possessing commercial characteristics and potential. Lots of wild species were also being included, because those species are potent storehouses of the disease resistances that breeders are expected to need in the future. (There are 32-36 wild species of apples in the world, depending on which taxonomists you read.) So the USDA was looking almost entirely for varieties with either commercial characteristics or disease resistance, and was not overly concerned with their histories. Seed Savers Exchange, on the other hand, understands that knowing the cultural histories of rare varieties (their stories) greatly enhances the chances for long-term preservation and survival. Being largely responsible for that message, I most certainly didn’t think that a commercially focused bottleneck should be allowed to destroy the majority of the apple heritage in North America. Half of that amazingly rich diversity of apples, both genetically and culturally, would never be available again! So I decided to use that brief window of availability to put a Historic Orchard of apples into place at Seed Savers’ Heritage Farm. USDA’s holding orchard was tentatively scheduled to be destroyed in 1992, so I only had about five years to rescue as many heritage apple varieties as possible.
During the next few years, I made several trips to visit Robert and Fay Becker at their home in the Finger Lakes region near Rushville, New York. In September 1986, my son Aaron and I were driving from Boston up to Maine (where I was keynote speaker at the Common Ground Country Fair) and then through the White Mountains to New York during the peak of the fall color, visiting various orchards along the way. In Geneva, Robert Becker took us on a tour of the USDA’s holding orchard while in full fruit, an unforgettably stunning sight. Robert got out his pocket knife and the three of us walked up and down those long rows of dwarf apple trees tasting variety after luscious variety, until we were all so full that we couldn’t eat another bite. The textures and flavors of each apple were strikingly different and often intense. As Mas Masumoto would say, that was one of the greatest “orgasmic food experiences” of my life.
Robert had an extensive personal library of more than 600 volumes, an impressive collection that his father had started. With Robert as my guide, we perused those ancient pomological texts as much as time allowed, but at that point I didn’t have a good grasp of the apple varieties that existed during the 19th century and before. I was expecting to spend a year or more compiling my own computer inventory of historic apple varieties using the pomological texts in Robert’s library. But then Dr. Way gave me his dog-eared extra copy of Nomenclature of the Apple by W. H. Ragan (and T. T. Lyon), published in 1905, which I had never seen. That landmark book contains the names and brief lists of characteristics for about 7,000 apple varieties that were mentioned in pomological literature from 1804-1904. W. H. Ragan and T. T. Lyon had even tried their best to sort out the thousands of synonyms which existed at that time. I was ecstatic! Those two men, both pomological experts in the history and identification of apples, had essentially done my computer inventory for me almost a century earlier.
The widely quoted statement that “7,000 named varieties of apples existed in the U.S. in 1900” is based on W. H. Ragan’s Nomenclature of the Apple. But just how many of those historic varieties were still in existence and actually available? Nomenclature of the Apple became my benchmark for determining the apple varieties that would be included in Seed Savers’ Historic Orchard. First I compared the book’s 7,000 apples to the 5,000 varieties in the USDA’s complete inventory to identify all of the pre-1905 varieties that still existed. Then I compared that pre-1905 list to the varieties in the holding orchard selected for inclusion in the USDA’s Clonal Repository in order to determine which ones were not going to be included. Those were the historic varieties that I only had a few years to rescue, and therefore became my most critical priority. The apple varieties being heat treated and entered in the Clonal Repository would be permanently maintained and available into the future, so those could be secured later.
In an attempt to quickly learn more about heritage varieties of apples, I also visited several of the largest private apple collections in the U.S. On that same autumn trip to New England, Aaron and I also traveled to Old Sturbridge Village to meet Andy Baker, lead interpreter for agriculture, who met us in 1830s attire. Andy was responsible for maintaining 120 varieties of apples in their S. Lothrop Davenport Preservation Orchard. And on a separate trip to Virginia earlier that year, I had visited the home and orchard of Dr. Elwood Fisher, Professor of Biology at James Madison University, who was keeping a private collection of 900 apples that had been included in the USDA’s inventory. Dr. Fisher had spent 16 years searching for heritage fruit varieties in Virginia and the surrounding states, and had discovered many old European apples and pears that had been brought to the Virginia Colonies, some dating back to the 1500s. Although I did receive some grafting wood from the collection of 450 apples being kept by the late Charles Estep in California, I ended up requesting relatively few varieties from Seed Savers’ members and private orchards due to concerns about authenticity.
There were a number of significant private collections at that time, as I learned when I spoke in August 1987 at the annual meeting of NAFEX (North American Fruit Explorers) in Corvallis, Oregon. My speech included an attempt to convince NAFEX to start maintaining permanent collections, so their members’ vast holdings would not be lost. Although I got a standing ovation from several hundred NAFEX members, a few older folks in the front row just sat there stern faced with their arms folded. Turned out those were NAFEX’s officers, who were determined to continue only putting out their small newsletter of members’ articles and steadfastly refused to attempt any projects. Several of the folks I talked with that weekend were quite concerned that a lot of scionwood was being distributed by new members without being adequately authenticated, which was creating serious problems. Those conversations made me permanently leery of requesting scionwood from amateur collections, certainly a much different situation than the perfect scionwood Dr. Foresline was sending me each year of virus-free varieties meticulously authenticated by Dr. Way. I realized Seed Savers’ Historic Orchard could become a major source for the distribution for heritage apple varieties and felt the weight of that responsibility. Despite criticism that I have ignored some private collectors and their collections, I do believe it is prudent to draw the line at varieties that have been professionally authenticated.
At that point I decided to compile and publish an inventory of the fruit, berry and nut varieties available commercially from mail-order nurseries in the U.S., not only for my own use in putting Seed Savers’ Historic Orchard of apples into place, but also to empower the preservation efforts of Seed Savers’ 8,000 members. The original edition of the Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory, published in 1989, involved my staff collecting the 1988 catalogs of 248 mail-order nurseries in the U.S., and then inputting the histories and varietal characteristics into a database (after removing all of the ubiquitous descriptive “fluff”). That was followed by several months of my editing that data and compiling several thousand varietal descriptions, which included 832 varieties of apples. Four years later (1993), I edited the Second Edition, which inventoried 309 nursery catalogs and described 1,286 apples. Eight years passed before the Third Edition was published in 2001, which involved a two-year effort (1999 and 2000 catalogs) because the number of varieties offered had increased substantially to 1,737 apples.
The interest generated by the first two editions of the Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory may have been partly responsible for some of that growth. During my 32-year tenure as the Executive Director of the Seed Savers Exchange, I originated and edited six editions of the Garden Seed Inventory, used to rescue unique varieties being dropped by small regional seed companies that were being bought out by multinational agrichemical conglomerates. Statistics from those inventories of U.S. and Canadian mail-order garden seeds revealed a similarly rapid growth of non-hybrid vegetable varieties from a low of 4,949 in 1984 up to 8,494 varieties in 2004. Most of those new offerings were heirloom varieties coming directly from the Seed Savers Exchange and its members. Gardeners and orchardists typically request relatively few catalogs each year. Publishing “complete access” to the vast array of commercially available genetic resources was uniquely empowering in those days before the internet. Back then the employees manning the phone lines at Rodale Press, answering call-in questions from readers of Organic Gardening trying to find available sources, all reportedly had the latest editions of both my Garden Seed Inventory and the Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory on their desks.
Out of the more than 7,000 apple varieties in W. H. Ragan’s Nomenclature of the Apple, I was only able to find about 700 that were still available from government collections, private collections and commercially. In other words, only 10% of the apples known in the U.S. and Canada in 1905 still existed less than a century later. What a tragic loss! I was determined that as many of the remaining historic apples as possible would be permanently maintained and not die out. In 1986 I had lined up the funding used to purchase the gorgeous 57-acre property that became Seed Savers headquarters. Heritage Farm, as it was soon named (our tongue-in-cheek second choice was Tomato Preserves), was nestled at the base of limestone bluffs towering above a picturesque barn that my Amish friends skillfully restored. That was followed by a smaller second purchase of an adjoining, majestic, 120-year-old white pine woods that was about to be developed into house sites or even possibly logged. The two properties contained rich valley-bottom soils – topsoil in some places more than 6’ deep – perfect for the Preservation Gardens that I continually kept expanding, eventually reaching 23 acres of certified organic gardens. But neither of the properties had the perfect site for the Historic Orchard.
Back then, northeast Iowa was still extremely cold country, due to the frigid cold fronts that dropped down each winter out of Canada, and annual snowfall could be 70” or more. During the two decades my family lived in the farmhouse at Heritage Farm, the coldest temperature one clear morning (after the night of the full moon) was -41º F., enough to freeze your nose hairs. Cold air flows like a river, down the slopes and along the floors of the valleys. In country that cold, successful orchards are invariably in upland sites on northeast facing slopes with excellent air drainage. Such sites are the last to warm up in the spring, resulting in the latest possible bud break for apples and other fruits. A property that adjoined Heritage Farm to the south had the perfect orchard site, but was owned by a wealthy local family that for decades had never sold any property. That picturesque upland site dropped off steeply to the northeast through scattered, towering white pines, high above a broad river valley where two streams joined before flowing into Canoe Creek. The patriarch of the family that owned the picturesque property was intending to build a cabin there for the family’s use after his retirement. It took me nearly two years to convince him that Seed Savers’ Historic Orchard deserved the property more.
Seed Savers new orchard site was surrounded by large wooded acreages containing heavy populations of deer. Those of you who live out in the country in northern areas know that in the depths of the winter, deer tend to herd up. During the previous exceptionally cold winter, a herd of 170 deer was counted just two miles from the orchard site, and deer eat apple trees like candy. So, during the summer of 1989, four of my Amish friends (Dan Zook, John Hershberger, Dan Yoder and Levi Yoder) spent three weeks constructing 3,500’ of 8’ tall deer fence around the 7-acre orchard site. The orchard fence consisted of a 6’ game fence of woven wire topped with two high tensile wires a foot a part. Each of the sizeable 12’ posts needed to be drilled 4’ into the ground. An auger on the back of a new little John Deere tractor was barely able to drill most of the post holes, but there was a shallow layer of limestone under the northern edge of the site. Amazingly, I was able to find a fellow who had bought an old electric utility truck with a large attached auger that had been used for decades to drill holes for telephone poles. What a job that turned out to be! In addition to constructing the strong, permanent, orchard fence, my Amish friends built a log gatehouse at the orchard’s entrance, spiking together the cores of red oak veneer logs that had been slabbed on three sides at a nearby Amish sawmill. A gravel road and small gravel parking lot completed the infrastructure for the Historic Orchard.
The orchard I envisioned consisted of two trees of each variety – one tree on dwarf rootstock in a display orchard, and second for backup and scionwood cuttings after adequate authentication. Because of the severe winter temperatures, the rootstocks needed to be as hardy as possible. For the first edition of the Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory, I thoroughly researched the U.S. sources of rootstock available, an effort well documented in this compendium. The backup rows were grafted onto Antonovka seedling rootstock, a Russian variety known for its hardiness. Those backup rows of trees were behind a natural wooded windbreak, fairly well protected from the freezing winds, but the display orchard was much more open. I decided on P. 22 (Polish 22) for the dwarfing rootstock, which produces a small, extremely hardy tree, but is rather brittle. So I bought a cheap load of salvaged oilfield sucker rods (25’ lengths of ¾” metal rods), which I cut into 8’ lengths with a chop saw. The dwarf trees in the display orchard were all loosely attached with plastic tape to the metal rods, which worked well – no winterkill or broken trees, nor any lightning strikes because of being surrounded by towering white pines.
During that initial trip to Geneva in 1986, both Dr. Roger Way and Dr. Phil Foresline had promised their support as I put Seed Savers’ Historic Orchard into place. For several years, Phil supplied a steady stream of virus-free scionwood for grafting – four pencil-sized sticks of each. During the winter of 1989, a skilled grafting crew (David Sliva, Lorado Adelman and Lindsay Lee) made four benchgrafts of that year’s 277 historic apples (two each on both rootstocks to allow for inevitable losses). The delicate grafting process requires intricately notching and splicing a stick of scionwood onto the rootstock (of like diameter, so the cambium layers match), and then wrapping the splice with paraffin tape and a wide rubber band. The grafted seedlings are kept for a month in cool damp storage to allow the splices to callus over (heal together), and then into cold storage in a root cellar for the remainder of the winter. In spring 1989 those grafted seedlings were planted into a holding nursery behind the barn for additional protection, and the first plantings into Seed Savers Historic Orchard were made a year later in spring 1990.
There was never enough funding for the garden staff at Heritage Farm each summer, much less for the Historic Orchard. The annual pruning of the apple trees needs to take place while the sap is still down, but when the wood is not frozen. Due to the lack of staff, especially during the orchard’s second decade, I often did the pruning by myself quite early in the spring, usually with some snow still on the ground. That experience turned out to be deeply satisfying, watching my pruning skills steadily improve and, year after year, observing the trees slowly taking their shapes. And it just didn’t get any better than having my morning coffee up on the small second-story deck behind the orchard shed, looking out across that sparkling dew-covered orchard (sometimes steaming) as the sun came up down the valley. Later each spring, volunteers and staff borrowed from the garden crew would plant that year’s grafted seedlings.
After a decade of grafting and planting, the Historic Orchard gradually grew to 1,400 total trees – 700 dwarf trees in the display orchard and 700 duplicates as backup. The orchard was laid out in wide blocks on either side of a long center aisle. Each block was given a letter (A, B, C….), each row of trees within that block was numbered (1, 2, 3….), and the trees in each row were assigned a letter (a, b, c….) I had a large glass fronted case built and mounted on the side of the orchard shed to display an orchard map and a complete list of the historic apples, so that visitors could locate specific varieties any time during the season (for example, Maiden Blush might be A-3-g). Visitors who wanted to obtain scionwood were required to come at the right time of year and always were supervised, because many of the trees were truly the last of their kind in existence. During my tenure, Seed Savers Historic Orchard of pre-1900 apples grew into the largest publicly accessible display of heritage apples in the U.S.
The grafting for the Historic Orchard each winter continued to be done by skilled local volunteers. The process of making hundreds of benchgrafts ended up being an ongoing annual project in order to add new varieties and to produce the replacements that were needed, due mainly to aging (dwarf trees are short lived) and to replace the inevitable losses. During the project’s later years, Dan Bussey helped substantially with the grafting. Dan was a skilled cider maker who sold unpasteurized apple cider through Seed Savers Garden Store, formerly in Madison, Wisconsin. Over the years, Dan had given numerous grafting demonstrations and workshops locally, and he began doing workshops at Heritage Farm. For several years now, Dan has been the apple historian and orchard manager at Seed Savers’ Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa, responsible for maintaining the Historic Orchard that I created there 25 years earlier.
Starting in 1981 and every year since, Seed Savers holds its annual Campout Convention in late July. The weekend event, a cross between a reunion and a conference, includes speakers, garden and orchard tours, workshops and displays, and a barn dance. During my 32-year tenure, transcripts of most of the speeches were published in each Harvest Edition of SSE’s annual membership publications, so that members not able to attend could still share the words and thoughts of keynote speakers such as Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Elliot Coleman, Roger Swain, Gary Paul Nabhan, Nancy Arrowsmith and many others. In 1984 I moved my family (and Seed Savers) from the wooded hills of northern Missouri to Decorah, Iowa, where the Campout Conventions continued without ever missing a year. Dan Bussey started attending in the mid-1980s, always carrying five ever-expanding, spiral-bound, green plastic notebooks.
Every spare minute for three decades, Dan Bussey has been doing research that has significantly expanded W. H. Ragan’s Nomenclature of the Apple, which recorded about 7,000 apples that appeared in pomological literature from 1804 to 1904. In addition to the century of publications cataloged by W. H. Ragan and his predecessor T. T. Lyon, Dan’s research also included all of the apples mentioned in U.S. and Canadian publications through the year 2000. Instead of W. H. Ragan’s brief, abbreviated table of the characteristics of 7,000 apples, Dan has compiled histories and descriptions for 16,375 varieties of apples, and also has catalogued 9,700 “Synonyms” (other names that the apples were known by while moving around the country) and 1,650 “References” that are cited a total of 48,650 times. Not bad for a two-finger typist.
Over the years my genetic preservation projects required several trips to meet with the Special Collections staff at the USDA’s National Agricultural Library (NAL) in Beltsville, Maryland. During one of those trips, I was amazed to learn about a virtually unknown collection of 7,584 life-sized watercolors of fruits, including 3,807 watercolors of apples (side view and cross section). From 1886-1942 (mainly 1894 to 1916), USDA employed 21 artists (twelve men and nine women) to paint life-size watercolors of 38 families of fruits sent from all over the U.S. and 29 other countries. USDA’s Pomological Watercolor Collection provided documentation before color photography existed and today is a little known national treasure. Archival quality scanning and proper storage of the watercolors had long been priorities of Special Collections staff, but federal budget cuts were preventing those much needed preservation efforts.
In 2009 at my request, the Ceres Trust (a private philanthropic foundation) made a grant of nearly a quarter of a million dollars to the USDA’s National Agricultural Library to contract out the professional high-quality scanning of the entire collection of 7,584 watercolors of fruit, and to provide additional acid-free archival folders for the safe, long-term storage of these exquisite, fragile paintings. I am deeply pleased that the Ceres Trust was able to provide that substantial, timely grant, because the Pomological Watercolor Collection provides an irreplaceable window into our pomological heritage, and must be adequately safeguarded and permanently maintained. Today those Pomological Watercolors are well protected and the scans are freely available for unrestricted use on NAL’s website.
As a result of that effort, 1,425 high quality scans of those watercolors have been selected to illustrate this set of books, creating a uniquely powerful tool for identification. Virtually all of the classic pomological texts that contain any illustrations whatsoever only have line drawings of the side views and cross-sections of apples. A lot of those line drawings look almost identical and are relatively useless for identification purposes. I have been very strict about only allowing the inclusion of watercolors that match existing, published, historic descriptions. Doing so means that these seven volumes, containing 1,425 life-sized color illustrations, will be the greatest identification tool that apple enthusiasts have ever known.
In March 2009, Gary Paul Nabhan and Ben Watson (author of Cider, Hard and Sweet) organized an apple conference and cider tasting in Madison, Wisconsin. The unique gathering included several authors, whose books on apples I had read, but whom I had never met, including Tom Burford (Apples, A Catalog of International Varieties), Creighton Lee Calhoun Jr. (Old Southern Apples), Michael Phillips (The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist), John Bunker (Not Far from the Tree) who is in charge of creating the annual catalogs for Fedco Trees, and others passionately involved with various apple projects. During the afternoon meeting, everyone got up and spoke about their work, ending with Dan Bussey and then myself. For several years, Gary Nabhan had been trying to get me to agree to edit Dan’s research, but I was too busy with various other projects and had always been noncommittal. That afternoon in front of all those apple experts and authors, I publically announced for the first time that there was going to be a collaborative effort involving my editing of Dan’s research, and that I would also provide the watercolors for illustration and arrange for the publishing.
For seven years, entirely gratis, I have been editing Dan Bussey’s massive compilation of research and notes to create a manuscript with structure, consistency and readability that now totals 3,800 pages. As mentioned, I had previously created and edited six editions of the Garden Seed Inventory and three editions of the Fruit Berry and Nut Inventory, each including thousands of varietal descriptions that I compiled and edited. Having done such a huge amount of horticultural and pomological editing, I went into this project feeling uniquely skilled for the task. None of that, however, prepared me for this enormous, grueling, eye straining, mind numbing marathon.
No publisher or university press would touch a 3,800 page set of books, so in 2015 I formed my own publishing company, JAK KAW Press, LLC, in order to ensure that Dan’s research and the appropriate pomological watercolors are recorded for posterity. I intend to distribute a set of the books without charge to all of the Agricultural Libraries at land grant universities in the U.S., because I believe that having access to the book will provide numerous research projects and career possibilities for some of their students. A complimentary set is also being sent to each of the pomological authors or publishers who have generously given permission to cite the huge amount of copyrighted material from their publications.
I strongly believe the fascinating slice of history and the rich genetic diversity that Dan’s research has revealed must be published. In times past, apples were so highly valued and such an integral part of people’s lives, displayed and judged at local, state and national Pomological Society meetings, and at annual County Fairs and State Fairs and periodic World Fairs. When viewed in its entirety, this comprehensive compendium of minutely detailed varietal descriptions, meticulously recorded by expert pomologists, plus the histories of the apples’ origins and movement around the country, is mind-boggling. What a loss if Dan Bussey’s research in its entirety, encompassing the voices and expertise of two centuries of pomological authors and literature on apples, had never been published or illustrated so stunningly. What an honor to be able to help facilitate both.
Kent Whealy (Autumn 2016)