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A Mountain Heritage of Apple Trees

"You ever eaten a Sugarloaf?" he asked. I shook my head. I was a hospice nurse and this gentleman, I’ll call him Zeb, was my patient. We’d been talking about our favorite apples, but this sounded more like a coffeecake. "What about a Sheepnose June?" he tried again. I’d never heard of it.

"You ever eaten a Sugarloaf?" he asked. I shook my head. I was a hospice nurse and this gentleman, I’ll call him Zeb, was my patient. We’d been talking about our favorite apples, but this sounded more like a coffeecake. "What about a Sheepnose June?" he tried again. I’d never heard of it. "Well a Sheepnose is good eating, but there’s nothing that tastes like a Sugarloaf Pippin. It’s like candy, melts in your mouth. They just don’t grow them like that anymore."

Zeb was in his mid-sixties and dying of emphysema but he grew animated describing apples from his childhood in Yancey County. His hands danced as he talked of the small dark one called a Crow’s Egg, and the incredible sweetness of the Valley Water. Each apple was connected to a certain sunny field or mountainside and some farmers who didn’t mind apple-taking and some who did. There were memories of his shirttail filled of apples, then eating them on the long walk to bring the family cow home in the evenings. There was the beloved memory of stirring a huge pot on an open fire under autumn trees as Zeb and his
mother made apple butter together.

Every writer knows the magic of names and stories. Zeb’s Pippins, Virginia Beauties, Limbertwigs and Sheepnoses were like spoken postcards from another time. Every apple he named I jotted on my nurse’s form, right beside his vital signs.

I couldn’t forget those names, so a few weeks later I ran an internet search. To my surprise I found two nurseries in North Carolina specializing in antique apples. Thanks to Zeb, my fascination with heirloom apple trees was born.

An heirloom apple tree is a variety that was grown, according to apple researcher Lee Calhoun, pre-1930’s. Since they are not used for commercial growing, many are either already extinct or in danger of becoming lost. Nurseryman Tim Hensley writes that 15 apple varieties account for 90% of U.S. commercial production. Compare that with the 10,000 varieties grown in the U.S., and the 1400 varieties grown in the South alone, prior to the 1930’s.

Do we really need so many different kinds of apples? Ask yourself the last time you strolled down memory lane with a supermarket apple. Modern apples are chosen for commercial qualities like picture-perfect uniformity, thick skins for shipping, and the ability to grow nearly anywhere.

Heirlooms, on the other hand, are a wildly diverse bunch. Some ripen early, others are best in pies, make the best cider or store longest in winter. They may be tiny, huge, lumpy, robust or finicky, speckled or streaked. Many heirlooms may be suitable for a backyard but not a commercial field.

Beyond taste and nostalgia, heirlooms carry an invaluable genetic heritage. Carolyn Jabs, author of The Heirloom Gardener says, "In a world changing so rapidly, one of the most meaningful things we can preserve…is a full range of possibilities." If a lethal plant disease attacks the most common variety of a plant — as the fungus that caused the Irish potato famine did — genetic diversity may hold the only answer. The odds of finding a unique trait, say drought tolerance or pest resistance, are better in a pool of 10,000 candidates than 15.

Thanks to growers like Ron and Suzanne Joyner of Big Horse Creek Apple Farm in Ashe County, and Lee Calhoun of Pittsboro, the heirlooms live on. The Joyners boast 300 Appalachian varieties and Calhoun stewards upwards of 400 Southern types. And a growing audience of heirloom aficionados support their efforts. Some lost varieties may still be found. The Joyners’ most-wanted list reads like secret code on a treasure map: Angel’s Favorite, Catooga, Cullawhee, Haywood, Kittageskee, North Carolina Beauty, and Yadkin Beauty.

In honor of Zeb, I ordered a Sheepnose, a Virginia Beauty and a Smokey Mountain Limbertwig. Now the young trees with old stories stand in my yard. He knew about my trees before he died and was pleased. Both the apples and his stories would live on.

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