Watch the video, or read below, or both...
About 5 years ago or so I decided I wanted to grow some apples from seed. Michael Pollan’s book Botany of Desire was very popular at the time I think. His chapter in that book on apples is largely woven around the idea that you are very unlikely to get a good apple by planting a seed. The book was so widely read that it seems to have imprinted that negative idea onto the public mind. For a while there it seemed like if I brought up apples in conversation I was likely to hear one or more of the following things “botany of desire” “Michael pollan” “Johnny Appleseed was a pervert” Michael Pollan" “you can’t grow apples from seed” "Michael Pollan" “people didn’t drink water, they only drank hard cider” right, just try that sometime!
I am a critical person, and I just wasn’t buying it. What I see in Michael Pollan is an academic who is writing about things outside of his experience. A lot of his stuff on apples, the whole chapter really, is wrapped around this idea that you can’t grow an apple from seed and expect to get anything good. But, like a lot of things, this is a matter of context, not just some blanket truth. Well, the idea that apples planted from seed are by and large no good to eat is a gross over simplification. But when it’s the hingepin of the story you’re constructing, you beat it to death and make it fit. I speed read through the Botany of Desire apple segment the other day to see why this idea stuck with people so much
“The fact, simply, is this: apples don’t “come true” from seeds— that is, an apple tree grown from a seed will be a wildling bearing little resemblance to its parent. Anyone who wants edible apples plants grafted trees, for the fruit of seedling apples is almost always inedible—“ sour enough,” Thoreau once wrote, “to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream.” Thoreau claimed to like the taste of such apples, but most of his countrymen judged them good for little but hard cider— and hard cider was the fate of most apples grown in America up until Prohibition. Apples were something people drank.”
“In the case of the apple, the fruit nearly always falls far from the tree.”
“The botanical term for this variability is “heterozygosity,” and while there are many species that share it (our own included), in the apple the tendency is extreme.”
“Apples were precious on the frontier, and Chapman could be sure of a strong demand for his seedlings, even if most of them would yield nothing but spitters.”
“cider— being safer, tastier, and much easier to make— became the alcoholic drink of choice. Just about the only reason to plant an orchard of the sort of seedling apples John Chapman had for sale would have been its intoxicating harvest of drink..”
“Americans’ “inclination toward cider” is the only way to explain John Chapman’s success— how the man could have made a living selling spitters to Ohio settlers when there were already grafted trees bearing edible fruit for sale in Marietta.”
“The nationwide hunt for pomological genius, the odds of which were commonly held to be eighty thousand to one, brought forth literally hundreds of new varieties, including most of the ones I was now tasting.”
You can see why people read this book and think it’s complete folly to plant an apple seed. But I think Pollan's fable is woven around misunderstood ideas. It's not as though we can say what the odds are of getting a good apple is from any random batch of seeds. Or, for that matter, from the seeds John Chapman was planting. I doubt the settlers of that time were just a bunch of complete dunderheads. They were people that grew stuff and made things happen to make their lives continue, instead of not continuing no more. How resourceful and knowledgeable do you have to be to stick your vulnerable white ass out on the new frontier to quite possibly be tomahawked by the furious displaced native populace, while trying to wrest a living of some kind. Well I guaran-fuckin-tee ya that they all knew at least one thing- plant a seed from a good food plant and you’re more likely to get good offspring than if you plant seeds from a crappy plant. That’s the stuff of farming 101 right there. Maybe Monseigneur Apple Seed was crazy enough to ignore that and leave it all to gods will with whatever apple seeds happened to be on hand, but I can't see that as being the norm for the more sane.
Pollan, being a domesticated intellectual rather than a dirty nailed farmer type has, I believe, mixed up and over simplified some things. Sour green Wildlings are not always seedlings from good apples. Wild apples may be generations removed from the original source. These are more likely the sour, green, spitters people were writing about found in forest clearings and hedgerows and familiar to anyone who has grown up running around territory where apples reseed freely (where they will also be familiar with perfectly edible seedlings found here and there). They may also have been pollinated by crab apples, which would inject more primitive genes. He also uses the term wilding rather loosely, seemingly to encompass any apple that was not grafted… which would make all apples wildlings at some point right? Not sure about that one. Basically he seems to have cast all apple seedlings in one by-and-large negative light. And I wonder that we know what John Chapman was really planting. If he was planting just any old seeds from cider mills, it does seem probable that many of his results may not be the greatest for the dessert table, but even then it is likely that most of the apples were at least decent cider apples and not containing a majority of very poor apples. Regardless, if one was planting their own seeds to start up an orchard, it is hard to imagine they wouldn’t pick the apples they loved and plant those insuring a reasonable chance at something that looked like success. “Oh yeah ma, before we jump on this wagon and head west ta get kilt by injuns, lets just grab us a handful of whatever random apple seeds from them crappy spitters thats been a layin' around”. According to Michael Pollan’s book, even planting apples from good varieties was still a gigantic crapshoot. But his construct in on a shaky foundation. And that’s a problem with academia. I’ll stop there, but eye roll, eye roll….
I don’t remember all of what I was thinking or reading at the time I decided to plant some seeds. I did read botany of desire and was not too impressed, at least not by the apple chapter, or perhaps you’ve picked up on that? I may have been reading about Albert Etter too by then, but I don’t think it was until a year or two later that I read in a letter that Etter wrote saying how his first generation of intentional crosses exceeded the average in quality of all the varieties of heirlooms he had collected to test (about 500), and of course I was like “HELL YEAH, I KNEW IT! HIGH FIVE ETTER MY MAN!”. I think for me at the time it was more that it just didn’t make any damn sense. I remember getting a box of Wickson apples from my friends at The Apple Farm in Philo for helping them lay some block for a root cellar and thinking “these seeds must hold some amazing potential. This apple is so good that I can’t eat one and imagine it producing a crappy apple. That just seems highly improbable.” (I'm paraphrasing. I can't even remember what I was thinking 10 minutes ago.) So, I was like “screw all you guys, I’m’a plant these seeds anyhow!” And that's how it started.
I planted a few of those Wickson seeds in the open ground. They grew tolerably well. I grafted them onto already growing trees wherever I could find room and let them grow. It is generally said to be best to just let new seedlings grow freely until they fruit because it helps break them out of their juvenile phase to grow as many buds as possible. Well one of them grew like gangbusters. The branch, which I marked on an aluminum tag as wickson sdlg, 4 OP (for open pollinated), AF (apple farm), 2011 (The seed was probably planted in fall 2010, but I’m not entirely sure). Well, that one branch grew as large as the rest of the tree. Each spring I watched for some sign of blossom, and this year it happened. It bloomed and set enough fruit to require heavy thinning. How exciting was that!?!
The apples are medium/small, mostly red, asymetrical, take a fine polish, are smooth skinned and are longer than they are wide. I nibbled a few through the season as they ripened and they seemed promising even early on, definitely not spitters! Finally they were ripe around early to mid October, and I got to start eating them and feeding them to other people. And of course, they were good or I wouldn’t be writing this. Pollans Equation 1 seed= 1 in many thousands chance of a good apple. My equation is apparently closer to 1 seed=1 good apple.
How good is it? Well, that’s a little hard to say just yet. I would like to call it very good at this point, but I am somewhat prejudice obviously. Other people called it great, amazing, awesome, delicious and stuff like that, but most of them already knew it was something I grew and was excited about and they thought that was really cool, and frankly, most people are not that discerning and we are more and more given to overstating things. I took it to a tasting with about a dozen or so apples that were in season and it was probably in the top 3 or 4 there in popularity. The general trend anyway was that people liked it a lot. I like it a lot. I would eat one right now, or two, but alas, they are all gone!
The flavors are mild. I would put it in a class I call light eating, which I’ve come to appreciate more over the past few years. it has a nice juicy texture that is easy to eat and the flavors tend to be mild. The flesh is somewhat coarse, cleaving, not very crunchy or crisp, but not mushy or mealy either. It doesn’t have the snappy, crisp, crunchy texture that everyone is so mad about because we all have PRDSD (post red delicious stress disorder;) but it’s very nice. The skin is pleasantly thin. There are some subtle fruit, or fruit candy flavors in the background and maybe a little spice, but mostly I think of things like melon or sugarcane. It has a hint of that indescribable “Wickson thing” that is also in some other etter apples, but not a lot of it, and not as much as I had hoped. The sugar is moderate. I'd have liked more, but you could hardly make a piece of fruit too sweet for me. When I add sugar to my coffee it's closer to a 1/4 cup than a teaspoon. It's not particularly lacking in sugars, I was just hoping for some of Wicksons wicked sweetness. It is definitely a mild apple. If you eat something intensely flavorful and sugary before hand, it could taste bland or watery even, but on it’s own, it is a refreshing and tasty apple. Keep in mind too that this is it's very first fruiting and in a drought year at that. It could change or improve as the tree fruits in coming years under varying conditions. Really I need a few more years to assess it and eat a lot more of them. Which brings me to the next point.
I have over 120 seedlings growing here now. Only those first few Wickson seeds, which I believe total just four, are open pollinated. The rest are intentional cross pollinations between two deliberately chosen parents. Quite a few of those are crosses made with Wickson. So, I’d like some more time to fruit out some of those other Wickson offspring (hopefully starting this spring!), so I can start comparing them all. I don’t want to get over excited about my seedlings and name all of them when they may not hold up over time in real life scenarios. Anyone is going to be prejudiced regarding their creations, but I hope to be fairly ruthless in my culling and assessment. A main point of doing this at all is to generally improve apples. I grow a lot of heirloom apples and have found the same thing that Albert Etter found, which is that they could generally use improvement. Anyhoo, under other circumstances, I would be likely to sit on this apple, grow it for some years, eat a lot of them, maybe share a few scions to get impressions from some of my apple homies out there, feed it to as many people as possible, and generally proceed cautiously. Actually, considering all of that, I’d say there is a good chance I wouldn’t name it at all.
But I’m just perennially annoyed by the whole can’t grow apples from seed thing, and this is a good apple. My impression eating it this year is that it is at least in the top 25% of apples I grow here in terms of being something I want to eat, and I saw a lot of people eat it and enjoy it and say nice things about it. AND it is just so not what it’s “supposed” to be. I mean this is literally 1 seed=1 good apple. That isn’t some kind of magical luck. I picked a good parent and I got a good apple. No doubt there is some luck involved, but it ain’t likely one in thousands or tens of thousands type of luck. So I decided to name it anyway. This is my poster child for growing apples from seed. Whether it stands the test of time or not is not really the point. It could suffer terribly from diseases, the flavor could prove cloying, it might bear irregularly, or grow funny, or taste of pepperoni and worm castings in a bad year, or any number of other things. The point is that it’s at least good (if not very good :) and not a hard, sour, bitter, green spitter that only a bear could love. So I named this apple:
THAT’S IN CAPS WITH AN EXCLAMATION POINT!
BITE ME! you armchair book surfers and academics.
We must be constantly vigilant about the effect of the information we consume and what we choose to regurgitate, and how we do that. It is easy to say “don’t believe everything you read or hear”, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be as easy to practice. Certain pieces of information have extra sensational value, for sometimes hard to discern reasons, and seem to beg repeating. One of my philosophic mantras has become information is not knowledge. Information is > someone says or writes that most apples grown from seed will suck. The only knowledge to be derived from that is the fact that someone wrote or said it. If supporting information is offered, it is not really knowledge either. The knowledge, again, is that someone offered supporting information, which may or may not be correct or relevant. Ultimately, if we take it to a logical conclusion, knowledge is really in short supply. We can’t know, experience and study everything, so we often put our faith in experts or people we think would know something, people we respect, or all too often, people that are probably just good at sounding like they know what they are talking about and weave a good story. I may be that person right now. And sometimes that’s what we have to go on. We have to bust a move sometimes. We need to act sometimes. We need a starting point sometimes. But, much of the time we don’t. There is no reason to read stuff and accept it as fact. This isn’t religion. We don’t have to believe, or cast our lot in with professor armchair's theory of what-have-you. We can just be like, hmmm, he said that, interesting, we can just tuck that away for later. It's just information.
So, where to go from here. We need more citizen plant breeders, or just people planting and growing seeds. Diversity is good. Exploration is fun. Being involved with our food is rewarding and great on all sorts of levels. Planting and growing tree seeds, or breeding plants is another level deeper that I think more people are now ready to reclaim. Not only reclaim, but push the boundaries of. As internet citizens we have access to more information and breeding stock than ever. We also have huge potential for collaborative efforts, sharing experience, research, germplasm, inspiration and results. There is so much fun yet to be had! Just the idea of a couple hundred thousand people taking a chance on planting a few fruit seeds as a sort of natural cultural upwelling is pretty awesome to contemplate.
As usual, if you take a chance on growing a seed, you can shift the odds in your favor in various ways. First chose at least a good seed parent. That’s not too hard. save seeds from the best damn apple you ate all year. The next rung up would be to take two apples you like with specific traits you want and cross them. It’s not only easy (a little fiddly maybe) but it’s fun and really rewarding. If you want to get all geeky you can start researching dominant traits and all sorts of genetic stuff that can help you achieve more specific goals. And you can read all my articles and watch all my videos on apple breeding to learn some of that stuff.
That’s all for now. I only have a little BITE ME! scion wood to send out this year to select appleheads, but should have more to send out next year.
(remember, it's BITE ME! all caps with an exclamation point ;) HA!