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Nature Notes: The Apple Tree

Ed Robinson
March 20, 2016

I love apple trees.  It’s not like I am posting their photos on social media, but I’m tempted.  Apple trees are beautiful in bloom, and their fruits are scrumptious.  These trees are amazingly resilient, withstanding an array of pests, diseases and natural calamities.  And it would be hard to find a tree of more value to a wide variety of wildlife.

Apples are not some newfangled food – humans have enjoyed them for thousands of years.  The mythic Greek god Heracles was ordered to visit the Garden of Hesperides to pick golden apples from the Tree of Life, growing in the center of the garden.  The ancient Norsemen considered apples to be sacred symbols of youth, love and fertility.  Christians are taught that an apple caused Adam and Eve to be banished from the Garden of Eden, although there is no specific reference to an apple in Genesis (the word “apple” was widely used as a name for all kinds of foreign fruit and nuts up to the 20th century).

apples hanging from tree

Apples hanging from a tree (Pirita iStock photo)

Thanks to modern genetic analysis, it has been confirmed that the ancestor of our farmed apple trees (Malus domestica) still grows wild in Central Asia (Malus sieversii).  History reports that while traveling in what is now Kazakhstan, more than 300 years B.C., Alexander the Great discovered dwarf apples and took cuttings back to Macedonia for cultivation.  Grafting and cross breeding of domesticated apple trees has been practiced for centuries, and today more than 7,500 different varieties exist.  Our native apples were crab apples, not very appetizing, so settlers from Europe brought apple seeds to America, with the first orchard reported in Boston in 1625.  While crab apple genes have mixed with cultivated trees through cross pollination, the majority of apples grown in this country today may trace their roots back to Alexander’s prized cuttings.

Today apples are a big business on a global scale.  The total reported harvest in 2013 exceeded 80 million tons.  While the US is the second largest producer, we only account for six percent of the world harvest, with China over 50 percent.  Turkey, Italy and Poland round out the top five producers.  Thanks to new techniques for long term storage, using controlled atmosphere chambers to delay ripening, we can enjoy high quality apples all year long.

Cultivated apple trees are generally limited in height to between six and 15 feet tall, depending upon the genetics and the method of pruning the trees.  Wild apple trees can exceed 40 feet, especially when they have to compete for sunlight, which is quite common in early successional forests on abandoned homesteads.  We have about 80 apple trees on our old farm in NY, and I spend a week each March pruning and cutting them back to encourage healthy growth and production.  When I began my pruning campaign nine years ago, most of the trees were nearly overwhelmed by maples and black cherries that grew up in an abandoned orchard.  I was surprised to see that some of the apple trees had grown more than 40 feet along the ground trying to find an opening where they could absorb a bit more sunlight.

Apple blossoms appear in the spring, generally in May, at the same time as the leaves begin to bud out.  The delicate blossoms are mostly white, with a pink tinge that fades as the blossom ages.  Apple trees must cross-pollinate to develop fruit.  This mechanism probably evolved to encourage genetic diversity and long term survival of the species.  Luckily, in spring, we can observe hundreds of honey bees, and sometimes mason bees and bumblebees, darting about from tree to tree, gathering pollen to restock their hives with honey.  In the process they ensure there will be apples for other wildlife to eat in late summer through winter.

As with any other species in nature, apple trees must deal with an array of challenges to their health and production.  A late frost can damage the buds and limit that year’s production.  The tree may be attacked by bacterial and fungal infections, insect pests and mammals.  Black spot, fireblight, apple scab, aphids, maggots and moths may be treated by chemical sprays, although more farmers are moving to organic methods.  When planting new trees, it is important to protect them from mice, rabbits and deer, who favor the bark or buds during long winters.

Apples are popular in hundreds of different forms, juiced, cooked or raw, and can be part of a healthy diet.  An average apple contains over 100 calories, with fiber, minerals, vitamins and flavonoids.  Some people of European heritage have allergies to apples but cooking may neutralize the allergens.  Another use of apples is fermentation, to make cider and vinegar.  Through the use of distillation, other alcoholic beverages are produced including applejack, Calvados and apfelwein.  To complete the list, apples are used in making pectin and apple seed oil.

In pioneer days, apples were stored in frost proof cold cellars and provided valuable nutrition through long winters.  Few of us count on apples for survival today, but the apple harvest provides critical food for all kinds of wildlife in the run up to winter.  Some trees hold their fruit well into winter, thereby extending their value to animals hard pressed to find food.

The apple tree has to be one of Nature’s most dogged survivors.  They can persist through many years of hardship, when other trees would fall by the wayside.  I’ve seen apple trees with trunks that are 90 percent dead wood, but the trees are still putting out new growth on a few branches and producing fruit, with obvious determination to spread their seeds to the soil.

The Otter Brook properties to be purchased by HHLT have a few old apple trees in various states of decline due to shading by other trees.  One of the opportunities to improve the wildlife habitat values on this future preserve will be to release the apple trees from their dark surroundings and to give them a hand coming back to full production.  I look forward to walking the trails in a few years and seeing those apple trees in bloom, announcing that spring has truly sprung.

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