2002.06.12 Call him Johnny Applejack

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

Remember that famous figure from American history who almost always went barefoot, wore a sort of dress made out of old burlap bags, wore his cooking pot on his head, and—everywhere he went—planted apple seeds?

I read about John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) last week in a book by Michael Pollan called The Botany of Desire. Pollan has a theory that plants use humans to improve their lot just as humans use plants to improve theirs.

One of the four plants Pollan writes about is the apple tree and he covers that via the life of Johnny Appleseed.

My image of Johnny Appleseed was of a man who traveled across Ohio and Indiana planting seeds everywhere he went. I now know that his work wasn’t nearly as random as that.

Chapman stocked up on seeds in western Pennsylvania every fall by sifting through the mash left over from cider making. A bushel of apple seed was sufficient to plant about 300,000 trees.

Starting in the late 1700s, Chapman would head west with his seed into the frontier which at that time was anything across the Ohio River. Chapman didn’t just toss seeds here and there; he planted nurseries. He’d buy some land, plant rows of seed, hire a local youngster to watch over it, then head farther inland.

He turned out to be a very shrewd developer. Somehow, he seemed to know where the next wave of settlers would travel, and when they arrived, he would have two or three-year-old apple trees to sell.

That’s not the whole story, of course. Like the apple, says Pollan, Johnny Appleseed has been sweetened beyond recognition.

Chapman is said to be a truly eccentric American folk hero. He mostly lived outdoors. He was a vegetarian and he considered it cruel to ride a horse or cut down a tree. He went from cabin to cabin visiting pioneers, handing out religious tracts and offering to present “the freshest news from Heaven.”

To break into the Appleseed myth, you could start with this: You don’t plant apple trees from seed, at least not if you want something to eat.

When Chapman arrived, there were nurseries in what would soon become the state of Ohio. They offered grafted trees that would produce edible fruit. Chapman didn’t believe in grafting (only God can improve the apple), but his trees were the popular ones, even though they mostly fostered “spitters”—fruit too sour to eat.

Eating? These apples were for drinking. As Pollan puts it, Johnny Appleseed brought the gift of alcohol to the frontier. Aside from water, cider (and its unrefrigerated later stages) was the only drink available.

The Bible warned of the temptation of the grape, but there was no caution about the apple. Actually, the apple isn’t even mentioned by name in the Garden of Eden tale. Some scholars think it must have been the pomegranate since apples didn’t thrive in that region of the world.

Henry Thoreau writes how the history of the apple tree in North American mirrors that of the human settlers. They both came across the ocean from Europe and proceeded to change. An early settler in Ohio was as different from an Englishman as a Macintosh is from a Newtown Pippin.

Apples are eager to do business with humans, Pollan says, and Chapman made it all possible. Humans got their applejack; the apples got thousands of miles of new habitat.

Mixing with the native crab apple, these offspring of the original domesticated apple (from the mountains of Kazakhstan) produced hundreds of new varieties.

It was an apple orgy that went on for decades. They adjusted to the new climate, the new soil and the hours of sunlight to produce an entirely new American fruit.

Some of you may wish to raise a toast to John Chapman. Myself, I’m heading for the refrigerator to wash off a Gala. It’s by no means a great apple, but what can you expect on a warm day in June.

    – June 12, 2002
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