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Flowers, Fruits, and Frass

Interesting and Brief: A History of Apples & Their Uses

When local orchard branches are laden with delicious jewels of fruit, the apple season has arrived. Before sinking your teeth into this year’s harvest, consider the rich history of this commonplace fruit.

When planting America’s roots in the colony of Jamestown...

John Smith was pleasantly surprised by the health and vigor of tree fruits rooting in the soil and remarked, “…peaches, apples, apricots and figs prosper exceedingly.” It was 1607 and Captain John Smith had brought 104 settlers to an unknown climate to establish the colony of Jamestown. In planning for hungry mouths, the colonists brought along a selection of Europe’s best livestock and planting stock – including apple seeds and saplings. To their great fortune, many crops, including apples, thrived in the land of new settlement.

As the colonies grew, so did apple orchards.

The first governor of Virginia, William Berkley, declared of every planter, “…for every 500 acres deeded him…enclose ¼ acre near his dwelling house for orchards and gardens.” As a result, the popularity of apples grew over the next 200 years in Virginia, then in the 13 colonies and beyond. With such popularity, how were all these apples consumed? Did an apple a day keep the doctor away? Or was it a pint of cider?

"Up until Prohibition, an apple grown in America was far less likely to be eaten than to wind up in a barrel of cider," writes Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire. "In rural areas, cider took the place of not only wine and beer but of coffee and tea, juice, and even water."

For poor settlers with a homestead orchard, producing fermented cider from apples for long-term storage was the best beverage staple. When stored long-term, cider was safer than water because fermentation had the ability to kill and inhibit the growth of pathogenic microbes. The only water safe to drink on the frontier was boiled. Routine boiling would have been a resource-heavy and time intensive task. Can you imagine boiling water in August – no, thanks!

As Westward Expansion continued,

a man who made history, and then turned legend, was curating the apple orchards of Illinois. Enter Johnny Appleseed, a.k.a. John Chapman. Born in 1774, Chapman traveled beyond the boundaries of frontiersman with apple seeds in hand, staking his claim of land for apple nurseries. Clustering his plantings near navigable roads and streams, pioneers arriving at their new homesteads would purchase what had become hearty apple tree saplings. Described as a laid-back, river-traveling, pioneer with a guerrilla-planting spirit, J. Appleseed proved his worth as a businessman on a patch of the American frontier we call home.

By 1905, with 300 years of apple seeds planted, there were over 14,000 varieties of apple growing in the U.S., according to W.H. Ragan in Nomenclature of the Apple. This tremendous variety of one fruit is due to the incredible genetic potential of apples and some very thirsty pioneers.

This fall, seek out the oldest apple variety from your local orchardist and celebrate a delicious history with every bite.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Frillman is a Local Foods and Small Farms Educator serving Livingston, McLean, and Woodford Counties. A fourth-generation graduate from University of Illinois, Frillman has a B.A. with a double major of Political Science and Spanish and a M.S. in Crop Science with a focus on crop production. Before joining Illinois Extension, Frillman completed a field season of CSA and farmers’ market-style production at a small “beyond-organic” vegetable farm in Sandy, Oregon.

ABOUT THE EDITOR: Liz Repplinger is the Agriculture and Natural Resources Program Coordinator serving Livingston, McLean, and Woodford Counties. A Bloomington-Normal native, Liz earned a B. A. in Animal Science and an M.S. in Animal Science from Illinois State University. She has enjoyed contributing to the multiple facets of Extension including previous support of the 4-H Youth Development Program as a program coordinator and current support of Unit and Statewide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives.