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Something Wild: Wild Apples

Phil via flickr Creative Commons

October brings crisp air and crisp apples. An October tradition I recommend is searching for the perfect wild apple.

Admittedly, most wild apples are what's known as "spitters." Take a bite and you spit it out. That makes it all the more rewarding when you do find a pleasing one. 

A perfect wild apple is, in fact, where some great apple varieties began. The very first McIntosh came from a wild tree that John McIntosh of Ontario happened upon 200 years ago. An apple seedling doesn't grow true to its parent, however. Plant 50 seeds from one tree and you'll get 50 different apples, each manifesting different qualities. So John McIntosh and his son Allan cut twigs from that first wild tree and grafted them to growing rootstock. Every McIntosh tree today is grafted, a clone of that original wild tree that was first encountered quite by chance. 

In more recent times, apple varieties come from the plant nursery, not the wild.  The increasingly popular Honeycrisp was developed and trade-marked by the University of Minnesota by crossing Macoun and Honeygold. All Honeycrisps grown since are clones of that original hybrid. 

There's a world of character apples beyond the familiar McIntosh, Granny Smith and Red Delicious varieties that usually travel long distances to reach store shelves.  Search out the small orchards that offer heirloom apples like Stayman Winesap, Duchess of Oldenberg, or Thomas Jefferson's favorite, Esopus Spitzenberg. And if you do find a wild apple that pleases you, next spring graft a twig or two and start your own named variety.

Chris Martin has worked for New Hampshire Audubon for over 31 years as a Conservation Biologist, specializing in birds of prey such as Bald Eagles, Ospreys, and Peregrine Falcons.

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