|Abbey Verrier is one with an heirloom apple tree. Photo by John Bunker|
By Abbey Verrier
For the past four years, I’ve spent my fall seasons driving through Maine’s countryside, one eye on the road and the other scanning the landscape, searching for apple trees. I started doing this while apprenticing with John Bunker and Cammy Watts on their homestead in Palermo. John has been searching for old apple varieties grown in Maine for the last 30 years. To find an apple tree that is 50 years old is good, but the ones we covet are the really old trees, those planted before 1900. The trunks of these trees are huge and even to the unpracticed eye are undeniably ancient. We once visited a ‘Tolman Sweet’ in New Sharon so old that all the core wood had rotted, leaving only a living shell of a trunk large enough for three people to fit inside. Usually the tree’s grandeur is enough to justify our visit, but what we’re really looking for is forgotten fruit, varieties that are nearly extinct. These are apples that were discovered and propagated by the ex-Europeans who invaded Maine long before it became a state.
Back then Maine was a bustling latticework of farm life where everyone was excited about apples. Each community had its own favorite varieties. Today we mainly purchase and eat dessert varieties, apples we consume fresh and raw, but in the old days people had an apple for every season and every use. Even without modern refrigeration, families enjoyed fresh apples 8 to 10 months of the year. Those they didn’t eat fresh they preserved and consumed year round. Not only did they grow apples for fresh eating, they also cultivated varieties that were best when baked in pies, that kept in storage all winter, and that, when pressed into juice and fermented, made superb hard cider. Back then apples were eaten in pandowdies, sauce, apple butter and even molasses. Each county hosted agricultural fairs where farmers would display their best fruit for cash rewards. Over time this culture slowly faded, and hundreds of these wonderful apple varieties were forgotten.
Where are all the heirloom apples now? With help from Maine’s most ardent fruit explorers, MOFGA has created a 10-acre preservation orchard on the MOFGA grounds. In three years we’ve transformed a depleted gravel pit into a terraced hillside lined with apples and pears, berries, native shrubs and perennial herbs. In the last two years, volunteers have planted 175 apple varieties on site. Next spring we’ll plant 50 more. Eventually the orchard will be home to more than 500 heirloom apples. Huey Coleman’s newly released documentary details the creation of the Heritage Orchard and its many components. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6of4-mhlSA4)
Although we’ve come a long way in preserving Maine’s heritage apples, work remains to be done. As the fall season unfolds, why not do some fruit exploring of your own? You’ll see apple trees everywhere, especially this year when every tree seems to be full of fruit. They grow along roadsides, streams and fields and even in the middle of the forest. Stop your car and try them! Collect them! Throw them into a pie! One of the many long lost varieties could be at your feet, just waiting for you to notice.
When you’re at the Common Ground Country Fair, stop at the Fedco Trees display to meet the Maine Heritage Orchard committee. As always, we’ll display an amazing diversity of heirloom apples. We’ll help you identify your fruit samples and hone your apple-seeking eye. Right behind the Fedco Trees display, in the Hayloft tent, we’ll have talks on new models of orcharding and agriculture all weekend as well as apple tastings on Friday and Saturday.
Be sure to check out the Heritage Orchard itself. Caring for the trees, shrubs and herbs is ongoing, and we’d love for you to get involved. For more information go to the Maine Heritage Orchard page at mofga.org (listed under the “Home” tab) or email [email protected].
Abbey Verrier is the Maine Heritage Orchard research assistant.