Johnny Appleseed, Apple Genetics, and Burnt Orchards

One of the podcasts I listen to quite a bit is Stuff You Missed in History Class. They recently ran a “classic” episode demystifying the life of Johnny Appleseed, as John Chapman has become known. 

Now, all I really knew about him was from the Disney cartoon and one volume about the man in the Value Tales books. (Remember those? The one about him was titled The Value of Love.) Given that, I found it surprisingly interesting, though it turns out it’s pretty hard to demystify the life of someone about whom a lot of stuff has been made up… and who went to some lengths to mystify his own life in the first place.   

Anyway, besides the fact that the man was a Swedenborgian (!) vegetarian who was against grafting apple cuttings—he was opposed to cutting up living things, even though made apple cultivation much more of a crapshoot—I learned that in any case,  apples just a hundred and twenty years ago mostly sucked: they weren’t the nice, sweet, big fruit we’re used to, but instead were small, sour, and not that nice… and if you grew apple trees from seeds, it really was a crapshoot in terms of what kinds of apples you’d get: because of the bizarro nature of apple genetics, the old saying about apples not falling far from the tree? It’s totally wrong. I’d figured apples had been ‘roided up in the past century or so, but I’d underestimated just how much.)

So why were people growing them? Why did people appreciate Chapman’s apple seed-planting?

Because they just wanted to get drunk. See, apples (at least the kind he was planting) were pretty much used for nothing much else at that time, because most people hated the sour flavor and saw them as not much good for anything else. Chapman was a popular guy, in part, because he was bringing the gift of booze to the frontier, and presumably that outweighed what the other settlers presumably saw as all his “weird religious talk” and other “eccentricities.” 

Now, I was already aware that in the new world, barley cultivation didn’t take off in anything like the amounts needed for a decent brewing industry to exist in the late 1700s. There are accounts of colonials in New England complaining of persimmon beer, which seems to be more like a fermented mix of persimmon juice and barley beer (heavier on the former, apparently). But I hadn’t given much thought to the idea that apples might have been pressed (ahem!) to pick up the slack, becoming a crop that, at least on the frontier, was primarily cultivated for the production of alcohol. 

That also explains why, though probably some of the apple plants alive today are the descendants/clones (through grafted cuttings) from some of trees Chapman planted, many of the orchards established by Appleseed were destroyed long before the apple trees themselves would naturally have died: the first chance they got, Temperance adherents burnt them right to the ground. 

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