New Mexico Fruit Explorers, The Quest
It’s about a diverse a group of people as one can imagine, different backgrounds, ideologies, professions, experience, but we are gathered here in our living room for a grafting workshop with a common purpose, our individual quest for a perfect apple. We seek perfection in flavor, not appearance, for perfect appearance can be found in the produce department of any grocery store.
Of approximately 10,000 named varieties of apples, possibly fewer than 20 can be found on store shelves. For commercial growers trying to survive in a market dominated by imported fruit a few traits are necessary. First growers need uniformity, all the apples in a box should look alike, without blemish. All the fruit should color before ripening and all of the apples on a tree should be ready to pick at the same time. Ripe apples are more subject to bruising during handling and have a shorter storage life. With labor costs in the field, growers need one picking or two at the most in an area. Any tree with apples of different sizes and maturity won’t provide a profit.“As American as apple pie” is a catchy phrase. Order a slice in America and ask the waitress what’s in it. She’ll answer “apples” and give a funny look back over her shoulder as she wonders what kind of a customer you are. Ask your produce man if he has any Newtown Pippin or Esopus Spitzenberg and you can guess his answer, yet these were the respective favorites of Presidents Washington and Jefferson, both men who knew their apples well.
We have been taught that an apple is an apple. Well………not really. In Europe apples are classified according to their purpose. There are baking apples, sauce apples, cider apples and dessert apples. Eating an apple out of hand which is not classified as a dessert apple is considered a waste of time.
Cider presses are directed by masters with tastes as finely tuned as any vintners. The blend of apples results in raw apple juice unlike any on our store shelves. Fermented it becomes cider as varied as any wine selection. Distill that cider and apple brandy, or apple jack, or Calvados will emerge.
In the US we still have thousands of apple varieties, suited for every taste and purpose. Some store overwinter, almost until other varieties are ready the following year. Others begin to deteriorate as soon as they are picked, lasting only a few days. Shapes and sizes vary, some look like they have potato skin. Beneath the skin they can be white fleshed, yellow fleshed or red fleshed. There are sweets, bittersharps and every degree between. Names can be as intriguing as the appearances. Sops of Wine, Irish Peach, Summer Rambo , Westfield’s Seek No Further and Winter Banana can conjure up all sorts of images.
There are thousands of varieties still in existence in the US, but finding them can be a bit of a challenge. When the New Mexico Fruit Explorers group gathers the challenge often is not in settling on the best which is available, but finding and identifying the best which has no longer been available because it is so rare.
As piles of small branches appear on the table, people gather to sort and express amazement on the scionwood which is available. Scions (pronounced sigh-on, the “c” is silent) provide the buds from which a new tree will grow. Rootstock can be considered the foundation of a tree. From below the graft union it influences the tree size, hardiness, and time required to reach bearing. Above the union, the scion grows into the tree structure, duplicating the variety of its parent plant. Because apple seeds do not reproduce true to the parent, grafting is necessary to provide known results.
The mechanics of grafting involve matching the cambium layers of the scion and the rootstock in such a way that they will grow together into one plant. There are many methods of doing this, developed over centuries of trial and error. However it is done, it still seems a bit of magic when the new growth appears.
At this meeting beginners are guided by experts and the bin of rootstock steadily depletes leaving many choice varieties of scions ungrafted. Next month more rootstock will arrive and the scene will be duplicated. The quest for the best tasting apple will continue.