Apples are one of the most historically, culturally, and economically significant fruits on earth. It’s estimated that humans have been eating apples since 50,000 BCE. Today, there are currently over 7,500 known cultivars of apples, ranging from small, green and tart, to big red sweet globes. The modern apple is thought to have been domesticated in modern-day Kazakstan 4,000-10,000 years ago.
Apples are not native to New York State or the United States at all. However, today there are over 42,360 acres of apple orchards in the state of New York, which is second in the US behind the state of Washington for apple production. The United States (5M tons/year) is second only to China (50M tons/year) in apple production.
So how did the United States become a leader in growing a fruit that is relatively new to the area?
History and Facts
Archeological evidence suggests that humans have been eating apples since about 50,000 BCE. Most of the genetics of modern apples stemmed from an area in the mountains in Kazakstan. It’s predicted that the spread of apples by merchants along the Silk Road trade route across Eurasia brought together four distinct varieties of apples to hybridize into apples that we would recognize today.
Apples were first introduced to North America by early European colonists. These apple trees planted by seed are what we now call “wild apples,” they vary widely in color, size, shape, and sweetness. They were mostly used to make hard cider, and in cooked dishes, like applesauce and apple pie.
When Europeans first came to North America, they brought apple seeds with them to plant at their new homesteads and farms and to trade. As they claimed land, they planted apple trees as assurance that they would have something familiar they could eat and drink.
Pilgrims brought apples with them in 1629 and the first recorded apple tree to be planted in New York State was planted by Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant, who planted an apple tree by seed from Holland in New York City in 1647. There is a brief reference to what is called “Indian Orchards” in Ulster County New York as early as 1671, as colonists traded seeds with indigenous communities. Settlers aimed to grow enough apples to have cider and food through the winter. The first commercial apple tree nursery was established on Long Island in 1730.
With a climate similar to the mountains of Kazakstan where the apple originated from, the fruit trees thrived in New England. New varieties were discovered in New York State, like the “Jonathan” that was said to be developed in 1800 by Jonathan Hasbrouck near Woodstock NY. The first commercial orchard was developed in New York State in 1820. Apples were becoming widespread across New England. An 1875 census counted over 18 million apple trees in New York State, just 250 years after apple trees were first introduced to the United States.
The Connection to Today
Do you ever wonder why the apple tree in your backyard has small, hard, misshapen, and speckled apples, but the apples in the grocery stores are perfect and super sweet?
This is because the apple tree in your backyard is probably a much older variety, that wasn’t bred for commercial growing. It was probably planted by seed by a family or homesteader many years ago before modern varieties with thin skin and perfect appearance became widely popular and available.
Apples are part of the Rosaceae plant family, along with roses, cherries, peaches, plums, apricots, and almonds. There are currently over 7,500 known cultivars of apples. Today’s commercial apples are much different than the wild apples and crab apples found thousands of years ago.
Many “old” varieties of apples have fallen out of favor for bigger, sweeter apples, and are becoming increasingly harder to find. However, there are now efforts to preserve these historic varieties. Researchers in New York have planted thousands of apple trees from expeditions to Kazakhstan in Geneva, NY in order to create a genetic bank for plant breeders to access and study. You read all about it in Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, A Plant’s-Eye View of the World.
Unlike annual vegetables, Apple trees grown by seed are reproduced by sexual reproduction. This means that if you plant an apple seed, the tree that grows will not grow the same identical apples. Just like how children are not exact replicas of their parents.
Apple trees grown by propagation (taking a cutting of a tree) are reproduced by asexual reproduction. This is done by taking cuttings of one tree and physically attaching them to another existing tree. This process is called grafting, where two genetically different trees are physically fused and grow together as one plant. That new singular tree will then grow different varieties of apples from the different parts of the tree.
Cornell Cooperative Extension photo
Storage and Shelf Life
Apples are an abundant fruit that can be stored for many months in climate-controlled environments. Most apples in the US are harvested between August and November, but their storage ability allows us to eat apples year-round. Only 5% of apples in the United States are imported.
Just like humans, apples breathe oxygen in, and carbon dioxide out. Commercial “controlled atmosphere” storage will slow this respiration, allowing the apples to basically hibernate. Then, when it’s time for them to hit grocery store shelves, they “wake up” and begin to respirate normally again.
Apples also come with their own packaging. They grow a layer of epicuticular wax that protects the fruit from moisture, sunlight, and pests. This waxy coating may be washed off and replaced with a manufactured wax coating in commercial processing plants.
Geneva Apple Collection from phillyorchards.org.
Why Local Apples?
Because New York State grows a lot of great apples! According to the USDA, approximately 42,360 acres of farmland in New York State are home to apple orchards. The current climate across New York State, from the Hudson Valley to the Canadian border, to Western NY, is great for growing apples. The apple industry supports 10,000 direct agricultural jobs (growing, picking) and 7,500 indirect jobs (distribution, marketing) in New York State.
You can you-pick! It doesn’t get any fresher than literally picking fruit straight from a tree. There are many orchards offering you-pick in the Adirondack region like Chazy Orchards in Chazy, Rulf’s Orchard in Peru and Prairie’s Orchard in Malone.
Apple Recipes to Try
Cook them in savory dishes
Apples melt into a really delicious, soft and sweet texture when roasted and baked with vegetables or meat. Simply add a cubed apple to your pan of roasted carrots, potatoes, and beets. This really decadent Chicken Normandy recipe makes a sauce with apples, herbs, roasted onion and cream.
Nature’s perfect snack food
What makes the apple perhaps the perfect food is its durability to roll around a backpack and emerge just as good to take a bite out of it on the go. You can snack on apples just about anywhere, anytime. At home, these crunchy loaded apple slices would make a great after-school snack.
Nothing says fall quite like the scent of apples and cinnamon in the kitchen. This classic apple crisp recipe from Warren County Cornell Cooperative Extension is a great basic method you can use to add in other optional flavors, like freshly grated ginger, dried cranberries, or fresh raspberries. Our friends at Essex Farm have a recipe for an apple dutch baby, which is a great warm and sweet custardy treat any time of day.
Where to Buy Local Apples
Wherever local food and products are sold near you! Find farmers’ markets, local food retail locations, and farmstands selling local apples.
Many neighbors may be more than happy to share the bounty of apples from trees in their yards too. Just ask around and surely someone will be happy to share some of their backyard apples with you.
Photo at top: USDA Agriculture Research Service
How do you make the most of local apples in the fall? Comment below and let us know.
Editor’s note: This first ran in October 2021. Reprinted by permission.