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Why Your Supermarket Only Sells Five Kinds of Apples

Health & Wellness  (tags: abuse, americans, Apples, children, diet, disease, environment, family, food, government, healthcare, illness, medicine, protection, research, safety, science, society )

- 1789 days ago -
Every fall at Maine's Common Ground Country Fair, the Lollapalooza of sustainable agriculture, John Bunker sets out a display of eccentric apples.

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mag.w.d. Aichberger (34)
Friday April 26, 2013, 6:07 am
it's even worse! Forget "supermarkets"....
But ORGANIC shops here, in .AT don't have much more brands of apples either, and they're currently e.g. selling Pears from Argentine (i.e. the other side of Earth) much CHEAPER than apples grown here.

Kit B (276)
Friday April 26, 2013, 6:11 am
Apple /Mother Jones

Why Your Supermarket Only Sells Five Kinds of Apples
And one man's quest to bring hundreds more back.

Every fall at Maine's Common Ground Country Fair, the Lollapalooza of sustainable agriculture, John Bunker sets out a display of eccentric apples. Last September, once again, they covered every possible size, shape, and color in the wide world of appleness. There was a gnarled little yellow thing called a Westfield Seek-No-Further; a purplish plum impostor called a Black Oxford; a massive, red-streaked Wolf River; and one of Thomas Jefferson's go-to fruits, the Esopus Spitzenburg. Bunker is known in Maine as "The Apple Whisperer," or simply "The Apple Guy," and, after laboring for years in semi-obscurity, he has never been in more demand. Through the catalog of Fedco Trees, a mail-order company he founded in Maine 30 years ago, Bunker has sown the seeds of a grassroots apple revolution.

All weekend long, I watched people gravitate to what Bunker ("Bunk" to his friends, a category that seems to include half the population of Maine) calls "the vibrational pull" of a table laden with bright apples. "Baldwin!" said a tiny old man with white hair and intermittent teeth, pointing to a brick-red apple that was one of America's most important until the frigid winter of 1933-34 knocked it into obscurity. "That's the best!"

A leathery blonde from the coast held up a Blue Pearmain in wonder. "Blue Peahmain," she marveled. "My ma had one in her yahd."

Another woman got choked up by the sight of the Pound Sweet. "My grandmother had a Pound Sweet! She used to let me have one every time I hung out the laundry."

It wasn't just nostalgia. A steady conga line of homesteading hipsters—Henry David Thoreau meets Johnny Depp—paraded up to Bunk to get his blessing on their farm plans. "I've got three Kavanaghs and two Cox's Orange Pippins for fresh eating, a Wolf River for baking, and three Black Oxfords for winter keeping, but I feel like there are some gaps I need to fill. What do you recommend for cider?" Bunk, who is 62, dished out free advice through flayed vocal cords that made his words sound as if they were made of New England slate.

Most people approached with apples in hand, hoping for an ID of the tree that had been in their driveway or field ever since they bought the place. Some showed him photos on iPhones. Everywhere he travels in Maine, from the Common Ground Country Fair to the many Rotary Clubs and historical societies where he speaks, Bunk is presented with a series of mystery apples to identify. He's happy to oblige, but what he's really looking for are the ones he can't identify. It's all part of being an apple detective.

In the mid-1800s, there were thousands of unique varieties of apples in the United States, some of the most astounding diversity ever developed in a food crop. Then industrial agriculture crushed that world. The apple industry settled on a handful of varieties to promote worldwide, and the rest were forgotten. They became commercially extinct—but not quite biologically extinct.

Even when abandoned, an apple tree can live more than 200 years, and, like the Giving Tree in Shel Silverstein's book, it will wait patiently for the boy to return. There is a bent old Black Oxford tree in Hallowell, Maine, that is approximately two centuries old and still gives a crop of midnight-purple apples each fall. In places like northern New England, the Appalachian Mountains, and Johnny Appleseed's beloved Ohio River Valley—agricultural byways that have escaped the bulldozer—these centenarians hang on, flickering on the edge of existence, their identity often a mystery to the present homeowners. And John Bunker is determined to save as many as he can before they, and he, are gone.

The key thing to understand about apple varieties is that apples do not come true from seed. An apple fruit is a disposable womb of the mother tree, but the seeds it encloses are new individuals, each containing a unique combination of genes from the mother tree and the mystery dad, whose contribution arrived in a pollen packet inadvertently carried by a springtime bee. If that seed grows into a tree, its apples will not resemble its parents'. Often they will be sour little green things, because qualities like bigness, redness, and sweetness require very unusual alignments of genes that may not recur by chance. Such seedling trees line the dirt roads and cellar holes of rural America.

If you like the apples made by a particular tree, and you want to make more trees just like it, you have to clone it: Snip off a shoot from the original tree, graft it onto a living rootstock, and let it grow. This is how apple varieties come into existence. Every McIntosh is a graft of the original tree that John McIntosh discovered on his Ontario farm in 1811, or a graft of a graft. Every Granny Smith stems from the chance seedling spotted by Maria Ann Smith in her Australian compost pile in the mid-1800s.

The fine points of apple sex were lost on most US colonists, who planted millions of apple seeds as they settled farms and traveled west. Leading the way was John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed, who single-handedly planted hundreds of thousands of seeds in the many frontier nurseries he started in anticipation of the approaching settlers, who were required to plant 50 apple or pear trees as part of their land grants. Even if they had understood grafting, the settlers probably wouldn't have cared: Although some of the frontier apples were grown for fresh eating, more fed the hogs or the fermentation barrel, neither of which was too choosy.

Every now and then, however, one of those seedling trees produced something special. As the art of grafting spread, those special trees were cloned and named, often for the discoverer. By the 1800s, America possessed more varieties of apples than any other country in the world, each adapted to the local climate and needs. Some came ripe in July, some in November. Some could last six months in the root cellar. Some were best for baking or sauce, and many were too tannic to eat fresh but made exceptional hard cider, the default buzz of agrarian America.

Bunk called this period the Great American Agricultural Revolution. "When this all happened, there was no USDA, no land grant colleges, no pomological societies," he says. "This was just grassroots. Farmers being breeders." As farms industrialized, though, orchards got bigger and bigger. State agricultural extension services encouraged orchardists to focus on the handful of varieties that produced big crops of shiny red fruit that could withstand extensive shipping, often at the expense of flavor. Today, thousands of unique apples have been lost, while a mere handful dominate the market.

When Bunk lays out his dazzling apple displays, it's a reminder that our sense of the apple has increasingly narrowed, that we are asking less and less from this most versatile of fruits—and that we are running out of time to change course. Exhibit A: The Harrison apple, the pride of Newark, New Jersey, renowned in the early 1800s for making a golden, champagne-like cider that just might have been the finest in the world. But the Harrison, like most of the high-tannin varieties that make good hard cider, disappeared after Prohibition. (The recent hard-cider revival has been making do largely with apples designed for fresh eating, which make boring cider.) But in 1976 one of Bunk's fellow apple detectives found a single old Harrison tree on the grounds of a defunct cider mill in Livingston, New Jersey, grafted it, and now a new generation of Harrison trees is just beginning to bear fruit. It's as if a storied wine grape called pinot noir had just been rediscovered.

Page 1 of 2 - continue reading at VISIT site, there is an interactive map, and a slide show of varieties of apples

By: Rowan Jacobson | Mother Jones Magazine |


Kit B (276)
Friday April 26, 2013, 6:15 am

This article made my mouth water for those good apples we no longer can find. When baking I always used the Winesap apple, now those are available. Not in Texas anyway. Mostly we see Gala apples or Granny Smith with no taste. We must support the small farmers and some decent foods back in circulation.

Arielle S (313)
Friday April 26, 2013, 8:08 am
Johnny Appleseed would be horrified - Apples now have gone the way of tomatoes - tasteless mush with way too many chemicals added. I miss the old apples, too....

Sue H (7)
Friday April 26, 2013, 8:41 am
Bright Blessings to John Bunker! A most informative article, thanks.

Lindsay K (6)
Friday April 26, 2013, 8:58 am
Russetts, Worcester Permains .... - and why no crab apples? I never touch Gala, Granny Smiths or French Golden Delicious!

. (0)
Friday April 26, 2013, 9:19 am
Not a big fan of apples but I do like a deep dish apple pie.

Robert K (31)
Friday April 26, 2013, 9:32 am
Oddly, Red and Golden delicious apples are two of the least deliciious apples known to mankind.

Mike M (43)
Friday April 26, 2013, 9:39 am
Your not going to freedom of choice you get what they want you to buy and really do not care what they were grown in or what toxins they contain. They have your money

Kit B (276)
Friday April 26, 2013, 9:40 am

I second that Robert, though like tomatoes memories of good apples are fading.

Kelly Colwell (5)
Friday April 26, 2013, 10:03 am
Interesting article!
PS. Johnny Appleseed spread apple *seeds* around America, not clones, meaning they would not grow apples good for eating fresh, but would work great for cider... in other words, Johnny Appleseed spread booze across early america ;)
And he shares my birthday, Sept. 26.

pam w (139)
Friday April 26, 2013, 10:56 am
Might I mention that, due to grafting and selective planting, these apples are, in effect GENETICALLY MODIFIED? As are the tomatoes we plant in our gardens.

GMO is NOT always a negative thing!

lee e (114)
Friday April 26, 2013, 11:40 am
I never cared for apples - but I found the article very interesting!

Malgorzata Zmuda (197)
Friday April 26, 2013, 12:37 pm
Najlepsze są stare odmiany jabłek, może nie tak duże i ładne, ale za to smaczne. A już najlepsze są jabłka z własnego ogrodu.

Birgit W (160)
Friday April 26, 2013, 2:36 pm
Do we have any choices any more?

Bryna Pizzo (139)
Friday April 26, 2013, 4:07 pm
Thank you! Our store sellls many varieties.

Munro Tapper (80)
Friday April 26, 2013, 5:38 pm
This article is fascinating. Thanks. There are some great green star comments in response. Thanks for the comments.

When I do not see land, something that occurs regularly in my business, I sometimes entertain myself studying the pile of seed catalogs which are very popular on my ship.

There is quite an amazing array of varieties of veggies such as kohlrabi. So, of course, there is an abundance of variations available for something as popular as apples.

So much richness in life and food is being denied us for convenience and profit of the corporations who might just consider US, ourselves, some kind of a commodity too.

Angelika R (143)
Friday April 26, 2013, 6:39 pm
What a fun read! But I cannot confirm that there are just a handful on the market today, at least here we have a larger choice. Many fancy names in the article I've never heard of but I was happy to find many names familiar to me as well. But I also remember that my mom used to speak of an apple that she so loved in her youth and that we have no more, not here at least, and that's the golden parmain (sp). I personally love Jonathan, not mentioned either. I also miss Boskop being mentioned, the most famous (here at least) for baking, rather sour. Thanks Kit!

Kit B (276)
Friday April 26, 2013, 6:44 pm

Johnathon's I can usually find around late November. I also remember that each apple had it's own distinct flavor. We really have lost so much.

Laurie H (817)
Friday April 26, 2013, 8:57 pm
Just makes me yearn for days when we took long walks upstate New York and went apple picking!!!! The most delicious, sweet little tastes of Heaven ever!!!! Just "Beam Me Up Scotty!!!" I want to go back!!!!!!!!!!!~~~ Thanks Kit so much!!~xoxoxo

Sherri G (128)
Friday April 26, 2013, 11:45 pm
Good for Bunk and Fedco for preserving the many apple types that otherwise would go extinct. Thanks Kit

Tom Edgar (56)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 1:29 am
Kit. Where I live is the only place in Queensland that is cold enough top have a dormancy period favouring Pome fruit growing. I went down one day to the village where an abandoned orchard behind a friend's house had about a hundred Granny Smith Apple Trees. Unattended for years and no pesticides used they were, amazingly, pest free. Also the first frosts had been, and gone and the green Grannies had turned yellow. Now I am a fanatic about Cox's, but admit that these apples were just heavenly delights. I have two trees bot carrying four different varieties, but each year I'm usually beaten by the fruit fly, but then I'm not much of a gardener. As my late wife said. "He has two BLACK thumbs."

Tom Edgar (56)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 1:31 am
and seeing those typing errors I guess I was using both of those thumbs.

reft h (66)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 2:15 am
used to have a lot of apple orchards in my home town, but almost all of them are gone now. Either because of development, or because they've switched to growing grapes for the wine industry. Apparently it is hard to make a living growing apples these days.

Kath P (9)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 3:52 am
For those living in Canada you can watch a great 2 part documentary called The Fruit Hunters narrated by Dr David Suzuki.

paul m (93)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 4:42 am

5 ??? Your doing well ....

Syd H (48)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 1:37 pm

Sadly it's true. I've been traveling the world and in the stores everywhere I go there is just the same varieties of apples. Golden, Red, Granny, Gala, Fuji, Braeburn... Occasionally I will see one or two others. However, so far the best apples have been in Germany and England.

Just for the record Pam W. GE/GMO does not include grafting and selective breeding. GE/GMO is inserting unrelated genes such as fish genes into tomatoes, or antibiotic resistant bacteria into corn and soy plants along with other resistant genes from other species of plants, and then hoping for the best as long as it has USDA and FDA approval.

Also GE/GMO is about patents and owning the right to life for monetary and power control.

And usually it's about up-selling chemicals the patent holders also make.

Here's more to read regarding GE/GMO issues:

And here is action to take opposing GE/GMO apples which are seeking approval:

Thanks Kit for the post! :)

Judy C (97)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 7:51 pm
Thanks for posting this great article, Kit. You mention the Winesap apple, which was my favorite when I was young. I think about them from time to time, and wonder if they're available anywhere. They used to be widely available, but they just disappeared from the stores years ago. I'm going to check the local orchards this fall. We have a lot of orchards here in Nebraska. It's great that John Bunker is saving so many varieties of apples!

Judy C (97)
Saturday April 27, 2013, 7:56 pm
Signed your petition, Syd. Thanks.

Anne P (174)
Sunday April 28, 2013, 7:36 am
Very interesting article Kit, thanks for posting. The other day I was at my local Vitamin Cottage store, looking for green apples to make an apple crisp, and they were selling organic "Green Sweets" which I have never heard of. They tasted much better than the standard Granny Smith and made a wonderful crisp! When I lived in a small town in England years ago, dozens of varieties of apples were sold at the Saturday farmer's market. My favorite was the small but incredibly flavorful "Cox's Orange Pippin" which I have never found here in the States. Kudos to caring people like John Bunker who are saving obscure apple varieties for future generations (like Cox's)!

Past Member (0)
Sunday April 28, 2013, 5:29 pm

Eternal G (745)
Sunday April 28, 2013, 8:20 pm
I absolutely loved this article, mr. Bunker in his quest to save apple diversity! Seed saving and protecting diversity will become more and more serious in the future...

Kit B (276)
Sunday April 28, 2013, 8:34 pm

The petition listed above or at

Don't Approve GMO Apples!

The USDA is currently considering approval of a genetically engineered "non-browning" apple produced by Okanagan Specialty Fruits in Canada. The US apple industry is concerned, and rightly so. If unlabeled genetically engineered apples enter the US market, consumers, both domestic and international, could reject US apples altogether in favor of imports from countries where apples are still produced using traditional breeding methods.

I am one of those consumers. I avoid US-produced corn, soy, cottonseed oil, canola, alfalfa, sugar, milk and meat that isn't organic (organic doesn't allow the use of GMOs). This way, I can be sure I'm not going to unwittingly eat an unlabeled genetically engineered ingredient. If Okanagan's gentically engineered "Arctic" apple is approved, I will also avoid non-organic, US produced apples.

Consumers are concerned about genetically modified organisms in our food because the little research that's been done on these foods shows that GMO foods are less nutritious, more likely to trigger an allergy, and could be linked with cancer and infertility.

Please don't approve Okanagan's genetically engineered "Arctic" apples.

Please do sign the petition.

Thank you all for the wonderful and interesting comments.

Vallee R (280)
Monday April 29, 2013, 2:59 pm
thanks Kit -

Klaus Peters (14)
Monday May 6, 2013, 1:39 am
I grew up with my Grandparents during and after WW2 in Germany. Wow, the range of apples and pears they were growing, unbelieveable. Sadly, no longer available any where.

Debbie Crowe (87)
Monday June 17, 2013, 2:40 am
WOW! I never knew there were that many varieties of apples!
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