December 8, 2021
In 1905, the USDA published a bulletin: Nomenclature of the Apple: A Catalog, that listed 17,000 names. After removing the duplicate names, it still listed 14,000 different varieties of the apple.
Between Captain John Smith in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, and the beginning of the 20th century, American settlers planted thousands of fruit trees, and produced thousands of varieties. Horticulturists now consider those three centuries the Golden Age of pomology, the science of fruit-bearing trees.
The most famous of the early planters was John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed. “By the 1830’s, he owned a string of apple-tree nurseries across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana.”
Most fruit that we eat comes from trees first cultivated in Europe and Asia, and carried to America .
As for native American fruit trees, they include: the Juneberry, the Red Mulberry, persimmon, may haw, wild cherry, and pawpaw. Also, the few plum and crabapple trees native to America produce a tart fruit, good only for making preserves.
Sixty years before the USDA published its bulletin, a young and enthusiastic pomologist named Andrew Jackson Downing wrote a most interesting book, first published in 1847, The Fruits and Fruit Trees of America: The Culture, Propagation, and Management.
An enthusiastic lover of fruit trees, Downing is almost lyrical when he writes: “It is the most perfect union of the useful and the beautiful that the earth knows: trees full of soft foliage; blossoms fresh with spring beauty; and fruit, rich, bloom-dusted, melting, and luscious.”
“I heartily desire that every man should cultivate an orchard, or at least a tree of good fruit.”
Downing points out that each generation of living men and women possess fruit trees because of the countless hours of work that previous generations undertook and completed. For decades, they each tested by trial and error, and then grafted, cultivated, and pruned their fruit trees.
He then declares that there are two tendencies within every fruit tree, “a tendency to improve, but a stronger tendency to return to a natural or wild state.” It is men and women’s duty to fight off a fruit tree’s tendency to return to that wild, more primitive, albeit natural state.
He writes, “If the arts of cultivation were abandoned for only a few years, all the annual varieties in our gardens would disappear and be replaced by a few original wild forms,” and, “In the midst of thorns and sloes, Man the Gardener arises and forces nature to yield to his art.”
Downing connects “culture” back to its original meaning, “a piece of tilled land, or to cultivate,” before it became known as “intellectual training and refinement.” Indeed, the word “culture” has its roots in agriculture and arboriculture, “the grafting and pruning and training,” of human beings.
A current-day biographer of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert D. Richardson, Jr., said of Downing’s book, that “it is proof that one person can change things. No orchard keeper can be a believer in fate.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson—writer, thinker, essayist, and poet extraordinaire—read Downing’s book when first published, and took to heart Downing’s call to plant fruit trees. He first planted grape vines, and then over a hundred trees in the acres beside his house in Concord, Massachusetts.
He planted thirty apple trees, a dozen quince trees, plus plenty of plum, peach, and pear trees.
Richardson says that Emerson’s trees died long ago, and that today most of those acres, “have run wild. Only a few steps from the house the land is densely overgrown, abandoned, and impenetrable.”
That stronger tendency to return to a natural or wild state superseded that weaker tendency to improve. At least that is what happened on Emerson’s soil.
For those who like to catch and digest trivia, Concord grapes were named after Emerson’s town, but not due to Emerson’s efforts, but due to Ephraim Bull’s, the town’s fire chief, who “planted and evaluated 22,000 seedlings before he found his perfect grape,” a well-documented effort on his part.
Certain people find the time to take on substantial tasks that result in profound achievements.
For centuries, at Christmas time, adults have presented to their children— after they have sang carols and acted out the nativity scene in a Christmas program—a Christmas sack, filled with unshelled peanuts, almonds, cashews, and pecans; an apple or an orange; and a candy cane or two and chocolates.
Sweets, nuts, and fruit, the better things that men and women who work with and through nature, can and will create. The three wise men came from the east bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but children today receive that “union of the useful and the beautiful,” fruit from a tree.
The French writer Voltaire, in his fictional novel Candide, tells of a tireless old man who explains to Candide, “I only worry about the fruits of the garden which I cultivate off to be sold. I and my children cultivate them; and our labor preserves us from three great evils: weariness, vice, and want.”
Candide commented, “I know that we must cultivate our garden.” And our orchard too.