“Them Crow Eggs, Bellflowers, Staymans, Limbertwigs, they’re all sweet little cuties, but there ain’t no apple in this world like a Virginia Beauty.” — Jim Veteto
Jim Veteto strums a self-penned ode on his guitar, a jar of homemade cider by his side. On a visit to the Appalachian region for the Crop Trust’s #CropsInColor campaign, this is how we end the day, out in front of the barn at the Appalachian Institute for Mountain Studies in Yancey County, North Carolina where Veteto works. It’s an indulgently Appalachian reverie after a day of serious discussions: from here, the Institute manages its Southern Seed Legacy Project, striving to reverse the erosion of plant genetic diversity and of the cultural knowledge that lives with it in the American South. The Institute supports local seed exchanges and maintains its own collections, including an orchard of some 60 different heirloom – or old-timey, as they like to say here – apple varieties.
Apples that linger in the memory
Although its name roots it just across the state border, the Virginia Beauty has a special place here, too. Some apples just seem to inspire lyricism. And Veteto’s song says it well: the Virginia Beauty is not like a Crow Egg or Limbertwig or any of the other hundreds of varieties still being grown, here and there, in these Black Mountains. “When it’s in its full glory, it’s almost like Christmas spices. But that’s the closest I can get and it doesn’t even capture it,” Veteto muses.
According to another farmer’s description way back in 1914, “it has a distinctive flavor all of its own that clings to the palate and lingers in the memory for a lifetime.”
At that time, more than a century ago, apples were a dependable small-scale commercial crop. Later, the industry moved on. The number of orchards in North Carolina fell from 328 in 1976 to 117 in 2006. “There is only one actual commercial orchard left in Yancey County. There used to be a lot more,” says Veteto.
Fortunately, the decline of the business did not rob the region of all its diversity. Veteto has himself counted 633 old-timey apple varieties in his studies across Appalachia. This is still the foremost hotspot of North American apple diversity, and a big reason is simply the love that people here have for their apples. In the last few years, this love has bubbled up in a resurgent appreciation for cider. It’s a craft that both needs and appreciates characterful apple varieties.
Cider-makers are finding that those apples are still maintained and available in sanctuaries like Veteto’s. He is happy to share material from his orchard, and he is not the only one. The Appalachian Institute has many companions in its efforts – across the mountains, and around the world.
The global Malus
The story of Appalachian apple orchards, past and present, could fill volumes, but it’s just one chapter in the global story of a very special temperate fruit tree. Species of the genus Malus are native to forests spanning the Northern Hemisphere, and the domesticated species has gained attributes from several wild Asian and European progenitors since cultivated apples were first carried out of the Tien Shan Mountains of Central Asia millennia ago. Much later, migrants planted seed apples in gardens and kitchen orchards across North America, giving rise to a rich secondary center of diversity.
A synthesis of the apple tree’s global story, from its distant past to possible future, was the Crop Trust’s first step towards creating the Global Strategy for the Conservation and Use of Apple Genetic Resources. The latest in a series of conservation strategies we have been developing in collaboration with partners from the global conservation and use community since 2006. The apple strategy was developed jointly with Gayle Volk, a researcher from the USDA-ARS in Fort Collins, with input from more than 60 key genebanks curators and researchers in North America, Europe, New Zealand, China, Japan, Russia, and Kazakhstan. It brings together a review of the crop’s ancient and modern history, a survey of the status of major collections, extensive expert consultations and visits to key sites to sketch out a framework for securing the remaining diversity of apples.
The survey shows that the sort of work Veteto is doing at the Appalachian Institute – keeping a collection of apple trees alive to prevent unique local varieties being lost to history – is being replicated all over the world by a diverse group of dedicated people. Apple collections are variously held by public institutions, universities, private companies, botanical gardens, foundations, public parks and passionate individuals. Local and independent conservation efforts stand alongside bigger national collections, such as those of the United States Department of Agriculture. The Genesys online catalog of genebank collections lists data on more than 44,000 Malus samples in 91 institutions – representing only the best-documented of what is certainly a much larger number of collections.
Collectors and admirers
During our #CropsInColor travels in Appalachia we had the opportunity to visit quite a few of them. All have different roles to play in conserving and celebrating the diversity of apples, and different reasons for doing it.
At Horne Creek Living Historical Farm in Pinnacle, the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources maintains an orchard of more than 400 varieties brought here by legendary apple collector Lee Calhoun.
“Lee Calhoun actually saved all these varieties. He went around traveling and found them and put them here,” says Jason Bowen, who has been in charge of the orchard for the last 11 years.
And there’s a growing interest in these rare varieties. “Especially from the cider people,” adds Bowen. “I grew up eating Blacktwig – you can’t go get those anywhere else now. We are one of the few places where you can actually find them. We’ve got apples that taste like grapefruit, pineapples, bananas, strawberries.”
Over in Virginia, the family-run Albemarle CiderWorks maintains more than 200 varieties in its orchard – and shares the results in its cider tasting room. They grow out these varieties in a nursery to sell to the public. And they are always in search of new tastes, especially from production orchards that can provide them with enough produce for their single-varietal ciders.
In Upperville, Virginia, The Oak Spring Garden Foundation grows 28 apple varieties interspersed with native crabapples and other trees on its Biocultural Conservation Farm. With these, the Foundation feeds its many visiting artists and other guests – including with rich, creamy apple butter. Peter Crane, Oak Spring President, wants the flavors to carry a taste of history. “We want to play a role in preserving not only the fruits but the traditions, which go right back to colonial times. Eating fresh apples in the autumn, preserving them for the rest of the year, and making cider was all part of colonial daily life. And the cider was much safer to drink than water.”
West Virginia University has recently established a 43-variety cider apple orchard and Appalachian Apple Initiative to preserve and study apples that have, in some cases, been growing in the region since the 1700s. Through agreements with growers and cideries, they are replicating the collection in different spots to test the trees in various conditions and climates.
The University’s focus is practical. “Growing cider apples and making cider is a new market that is developing. There’s a lot of interest in starting orchards from people that don’t come from an agricultural background. Unemployed coal miners, for example. You know the economic situation in West Virginia. And agriculture could be an option for a lot of these folks,” says Michael Gutensohn, Assistant Professor of Horticulture.
Thinking on an orchard timescale
These apple enthusiasts are fighting against a trend of diversity loss that is as global as the crop. Assessments in many diversity hotspots, including Appalachia, have recorded dramatic losses of historic cultivars. And even the most committed apple collectors cannot save these varieties once the last tree dies.
Orchards are human-engineered ecosystems that have to be carefully managed for generations, and the choice of trees to plant is a long-term decision, with young grafts taking four, five, and sometimes up to seven years to start producing a harvest. In making this decision a commercial orchard manager has to respond to what the market wants, even if the market just wants more bushels of Red Delicious.
Meanwhile, Veteto has been tracking a shift that will make the art of the orchard far more challenging: climate change, which apple growers are already observing around them in their sensitive mountain environment. “The major environmental change of concern to orchardists in [Appalachia] is warmer winters and earlier springs, which can cause devastating losses to apple production,” Veteto wrote in a 2014 study co-authored with Stephen Carlson. Unfortunately, “current consumer and market trends are selecting away from diverse and potentially disease- and weather-resistant heirloom apple varieties toward modern commercial varieties that are highly susceptible to environmental change.”
While the Virginia Beauty is winning back more and more admirers, Veteto and Carlson found that most of the old-timey apple diversity of South and Central Appalachia now remains in only a few collections.
The core message
Those apple collections face risks of their own. The Crop Trust’s Global Strategy found that many local collections are maintained by just one or a few committed individuals, often without stable long-term funding, and are thus highly vulnerable when viewed on the intergenerational scale of crop conservation.
At Horne Creek Living Historical Farm, keeping a conservation orchard of 400 varieties is no simple task, and the apples aren’t always pretty. “Growing out good fruit is hard here, especially when every tree is different,” says Bowen. “That makes it a nightmare. One variety may not get a certain disease that bad, but when it is next to one that does, it just bombards it.”
For safety, Bowen maintains two trees of each variety on the farm. It is still possible, however, for disaster to strike both trees in the same year. When that happens, he has to ask around among other collections to see if he can replace the lost variety.
That duplication, backup and sharing of material is essential to secure global apple diversity. But a major finding of the Global Strategy is that the current system of apple conservation is fundamentally insecure, because there is not enough systematic duplication. Nor is there enough communication, interaction and knowledge sharing between isolated conservers.
The core message of the Global Strategy, then, is that local commitment to maintaining apple collections is essential – but conservers can’t do it alone.
“The most important first step is to facilitate linkages between the diversity of conservers to address the urgent challenges facing Malus genetic resources conservation,” the Strategy concludes. “This would also allow for greater links with the wide diversity of users” – for example, cider-makers, orchardists and amateur gardeners – “who are increasingly involved in conservation efforts. Greater collaboration within the community will enable global actions to better secure the diversity, through comprehensive accession-level information systems” – that is, online catalogs – “and greater cooperative actions.”
With the Global Strategy now published, the Crop Trust and its partners will continue working to establish a collaborative platform for securing apple diversity. This will become a mechanism by which apple collections, conservation efforts, researchers and user communities work together and support each other to ensure the survival of apples like the Virginia Beauty – and Crow Eggs, Bellflowers, Staymans, Limbertwigs, and the thousands of other apples worth singing about.
* * *
The Crop Trust #CropsInColor campaign sheds light on the complexities, triumphs, and surprises of crop diversity in action. In Phase II (2018–2021), #CropsInColor takes a look at 10 crops, exploring how each in its own way has become a staple in our kitchens, markets, and favorite restaurants, no matter where we live. The campaign highlights the important role that crop diversity plays in our daily lives and the need to safeguard this precious, global common good.