By Brandie Piper
The popular phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” can be a reminder to incorporate nutritious fruits into your daily diet as part of a balanced meal, and modern apples are delicious, sweet, and great to toss into sack lunches. But for a long time, apples in North America were bitter and inedible and mainly used to make fermented cider.
So how did the apple become America’s flagship fruit? In honor of Johnny Appleseed Day on Sept. 26, we’ve put together some information about the history of the apple, from bitter to sweet.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, apple trees grew in abundance in the United States, thanks in part to John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed. He gathered apple seeds and wandered through parts of the Ohio River Valley, planting the seeds for settlers who didn’t want to do the hard work themselves.
According to Smithsonianmag.com, Johnny Appleseed planted apple orchards with seed for two reasons. First, cider was a suitable substitute staple for residents in rural areas where water was unclean. Second, one belief of his religion was that the common way to grow apple orchards – called tree grafting – caused the trees to suffer. Grafting involves taking a stem and buds from an apple tree you desire to copy, and putting it into the stock of another tree.
When apple trees are grown from seed, the fruit the trees produce aren’t copies of the apple from which the planted seed came. The apples from the new tree are typically so sour and bitter they’re more suitable for fermented cider than for eating. That is why modern-day orchards use the grafting process.
When prohibition started in the United States in 1920, it was a dark period in the history of the apple. Apple trees became targets. Smithsonianmag.com says FBI agents chopped down many of the trees that were used to make hard cider, including the centuries-old trees planted by Johnny Appleseed.
Because alcohol was outlawed, the only thing left to do with apples was to eat them. This spurred production of many of the popular apple varieties grown in the United States today.
An apple for the teacher
Bing Crosby sang “an apple for the teacher is always gonna do the trick,” in his song “An Apple for the Teacher.” But apples were associated with teaching long before the 1939 song.
Smithsonianmag.com cites a PBS program called “Frontier House, Frontier Life” and says families were responsible for feeding frontier teachers, and apples were a symbol of appreciation.
The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center reports apples are one of the United States’ most valuable crops, valued at around $3.1 billion in 2012. According to the U.S. Apple Association, more than 200 varieties of apples are grown in 32 states by about 7,500 apple producers, with 67 percent of the crop used for fresh consumption. The rest is used for processing into products like juice.
The Washington Apple Commission says more than half of all apples grown in the United States come from Washington orchards. Several schools across the country have breeding programs aimed at developing new and juicy varieties of apples. In 1994 Washington State University started an apple breeding program, which resulted in the cultivation of three new apple varieties that are crosses between other popular apple varieties.
The University of Minnesota also has an impressive apple breeding program. The school produced the Honeycrisp apple, which is so well-loved it became the fifth most popular apple in less than 30 years.
In Clay County, West Virginia, one certain apple variety is celebrated each year with its own festival. The Golden Delicious apple was discovered growing on a farm in 1905, and was so well-liked that the farm’s owner sent some of the fruit to his favorite nursery 1,000 miles away.
When the nursery’s owner tasted the apples, he traveled to Clay County, West Virginia and bought the tree and brought home wood for grafting. Two years later more trees were growing and bearing the fruit that was eventually named Golden Delicious. In 1973 fans of the apple started the Clay County Golden Delicious Festival, which spans four days each autumn.
Celebrating Johnny Appleseed Day
Students typically celebrate Johnny Appleseed Day on his birthday, Sept. 26, though some prefer to celebrate his legend in March, which falls within planting season. They learn about his legacy of traveling the land and planting apple seeds for others.
One way to celebrate the American legend of Johnny Appleseed this weekend is to cook with some apples. And what’s more American than apple pie? The U.S. Apple Association has recipes for pie, sorbet, tart, and more.
You can join in the conversation, using the hashtag #JohnnyAppleseedDay.