antique apples with dan bussey of seed savers exchange
DAN BUSSEY has been called “the James Audubon of apples” for his decades-long dedication to seek out and identify more, more, more old varieties to make sure they aren’t forgotten, even if some are indeed gone. His recent work revitalizing the collection of historic apples at Seed Savers Exchange means the nonprofit is now able to take pre-orders for custom-grafted young trees of these oldtime treasures, so the varieties can live on in American gardens and farms.
Let me admit: I have a soft spot for old apples, and the massive, century-plus-old trees I’m blessed to cohabitate with deliver loads of imperfect but delicious fruit with the occasional soft spot—or at least various marks of character.
The venerable trees have taught me an appreciation of botanical history, more than some modern idea of perfection. That lesson was underscored in 1999, when I visited Seed Savers in Decorah, Iowa, where about 10 years earlier founder Kent Whealy had begun the orchard, each tree bearing a name, and a backstory, I’d never heard before. Apples such as the ones up top (clockwise, from top left): ‘Franklin,’ ‘May Queen,’ ‘Woodard,’ and ‘Blue Pearmain.’
Dan Bussey manages that collection today, now numbering around 1,200 varieties, and joined me on the public-radio show and podcast to talk apple history, apple care, and even apple pie. Listen in to the February 16, 2015 show using the player below, or read along, or both.
listen/read: antique-apple q&a with dan bussey
Q. How’s the pruning going, Dan?
A. I wish it was going farther—it’s been pretty cold and bitter here. I’ve got quite a bit done. The trees had, for the four years before I got here, kind of been left to their own devices, so for the next three years we had some pretty intensive pruning, and that’s starting to slow down now to maintenance pruning, which is a lot easier to do…
Q. ….than rehabilitation. And you arrived at Seed Savers when?
Q. Many listeners will probably have read about your affair with apples in that great “New York Times” profile last fall, but let’s give them the short version to start. How’d you get bitten by Malus domestica?
A. When I was first married in the late 1970s, I was going to homestead, and build my own house. I had a few acres of land that I was able to buy, and I was going to plant trees; that’s what I wanted to do.
I grew up in the middle of my old family farm orchard, and I was always surrounded by these big, old apple trees. I didn’t know much about them, but as they got old and died we cut them down and made firewood out of them. They were just lovely.
While the trees were still around, however, my family would gather the fruit in the fall and take it down to a local cider press, and have fresh sweet cider made. From there, my father gave me an appreciation for hard cider. We would always leave a gallon glass jar on the counter with the cap loose and leave it until it foamed. It wasn’t particularly alcoholic at that time, but it was so tasty. That memory has stayed with me all that time.
Q. How many years ago did you then start this almost academic pursuit; this sort of research and treasure hunt?
A. It’s over 30 years now that I’ve been interested in the old varieties. I started with the old varieties; that was the fun part of it. When I was married I was living that first winter with my in-laws, saving to build a house, and I read a review in the old “Country Journal” magazine, if anybody remembers that magazine.
Q. I do, because as we discovered in our correspondence, I’m the same age as you.
A. It mentioned a book called “Apples and Man,” by Fred Lape [Amazon affiliate link], who I believe was the director of the Landis Arboretum. I sent for it, and read it, and it was just fascinating, especially the names of the old apples—things I’d never heard of. I’d grown up with a number of old apples, but nothing like what was mentioned. I just got very interested.
Q. And you’ve been working for years on an upcoming encyclopedia of apples—“The Illustrated History of Apples in North America.” It keeps growing in scope, as you keep discovering more apples. What total is the book at now?
A. In the book, we are listing around 16,586 varieties, but my own personal count is over 18,000.
Q. We should be clear to people that you’re not driving America’s highways looking for apple trees; you’re doing research, yes?
A. Yes. What I’m trying to find out: what is potentially out there. When we find these old varieties, we might be able to find a history of them—where they were grown, what they look like, so we can make that comparison, and perhaps put a name to a variety when we see it. If we get the background down, that may help us to identify it.
Q. How many of 18,000 have you met in person? Or with some, have you just read about them, or maybe seen vintage images of them?
A. For example, there are watercolors I’ve been working with from the USDA’s special collections. They number about 3,500—but there are only about 1,500 distinct varieties, and many duplicates. Some of those are the only illustrations of a number of varieties that we may otherwise never know.
Q. Some are lost.
A. Many are lost.
Q. Whether in real life or in the more academic research, what’s the last apple you “bagged” in the long hunt?
A. The last one I found personally was a variety called ‘Yahnke.’ It’s from a Frank Yahnke from Winona, Minnesota, from the mid-1800s; he originated this variety, which was also known as ‘Winter King.’ We found a tree not actually very far from where I work, a huge thing, and the amazing thing on it that made it so easy: It still had a metal tag with the name.
Q. You are kidding me.
A. Over 100 years old, and it still had the tag, half-embedded in the trunk, but you could see the tag, and knew it had writing on it. We carefully removed the tag from the trunk, and it was clear as a bell: pencil-written on metal, and it lasted all this time.
Q. I guess that tree wanted to be known in perpetuity.
A. Yes, and it’s a wonderful apple; I love it.
Q. That’s the latest prize. What was your biggest “prize” so far?
A. Probably the one I really appreciated finding was back about 1989. I had acquired a cider press from a local orchard—the one my parents took me to as a kid. I heard about an apple that originated local to my area in Wisconsin, a variety called ‘Plum Cider,’ and I happened to talk to the orchard that had been abandoned years back. The lady said, “Oh, we have that—I had no idea anyone was looking for it.” I was able to get a cutting from it, and now it’s in the Slow Food Ark of Taste. It just was nominated this last year.
A. The best accounts are from those who still know these apples.
Q. Can we do some numbers for perspective? How many extant apple varieties are there now, and how many do you approximate once existed?
A. The numbers are the tricky part; I’m trying to do the historical perspective. From what I know, there were probably 20,000 different apples around, grown in this country, from the 1620s to recent times. At least that many.
Q. We should tell people that despite the expressions like, “As American as apple pie,” the apple is not a native plant to the Americas.
A. Not whatsoever. There are a few native crabapples that are nothing like the Malus domestica.
Q. So we have 20,000 kinds that were grown at some time in this country. How many of those do you either know there’s a live tree of somewhere, or you have one in the orchard?
A. The number is probably a mere percentage of it. Of those older varieties that originated in this country, a couple of thousand exist quiet easily. When you think of all the other apples that have come from overseas, there’s probably at least 5,000 apples we can get hold of now, in collections.
Q. How many at Seed Savers’ orchard?
A. Originally the orchard was about 750 varieties. By the time I got here, it had dwindled to about 550. Since then I have doubled it, plus. I’m probably over 1,200 varieties.
Q. Uh-oh, I see a trend, Dan. The “He’s Gotta Have It” trend. [Laughter.]
A. I have restraints that I am having a hard time following, but I’m managing. We do have an accessions policy that I try to follow—but I do get whims.
Q. I was so excited when the Seed Savers catalog arrived in early winter, and I got to that spread with a grid of all the thumbnail photos of the 40 apples available for custom grafting from the collection, for the first time. You’ll create a tree for them, to ship in a year.
A. I will personally graft that tree, plant it in the ground, raise it for a year and make sure it’s healthy and growing well. When it’s time to ship next year, we’ll have those trees dug up, and sent.
Q. I was so happy to see crabapples in the offerings—names like ‘Geneva’ and ‘Quaker Beauty’ and ‘Robinson,’ sitting among those apples in the grid of photos in the catalog. Crabapples have served an important role—they do a lot of good, for pollination, for instance.
A. Crabapples were always known as good pollinators, and in a lot of oldtime orchards, there was a crabapple planted for every so many apples.
A. Like the ‘Geneva’ crab, which is red-fleshed, it adds so much color to cider. If you let it fully ripen it mellows out in flavor, but if you get it early, it can be astringent. That can actually be a good thing if you’re making hard cider—so it depends on the situation.
[Above, clockwise from top left: ‘Robinson,’ ‘Quaker Beauty,’ ‘Geneva’ and ‘Kerr’ crabapples.]
Q. Let’s talk about growing apples. I suppose we should start by saying: Apple-growing has its challenges, especially if one wants to do it organically. What is most important for those growing them to do (including maybe learning to love and accept “imperfect” fruit, as I do with my trees, which I do not spray)?
A. I don’t want to scare people off, but there are known to be at least 200 diseases and insect pests that just love apples, and are always willing to help themselves to your crop.
However, for the most part, if you have healthy soil, and a healthy environment around you, your trees typically will fare fairly well, and you will always have an acceptable amount of good fruit, and there will always be a few that will have some bug issues, and scab and other things.
For the most part here—even in our situation where and we don’t spray anything on the trees—we get very acceptable fruit.
Q. By keeping them pruned, so light and air get into the canopy—that helps, yes?
A. Exactly. The canopy of the tree is like a microclimate. The humidity levels are higher within that canopy. If you can open it up so that air and light can get through, you will reduce some of the fungus issues like sooty blotch and fly speck, and make the trees healthier in general.
Opening up the tree also helps to produce fruit buds all along the branches—not just on the outer part of the canopy.
Q. I sometimes fall short on this, because I love birds and other wildlife to enjoy the fading apples, but is good sanitation beneath the trees in fall also important?
A. If you can pick up the bulk of the apples, yes. But sometimes I leave the fruit for deer, or turkeys—and that’s a good thing all the way around. It makes me feel good.
Q. What about winter protection? Voles and mice are a big deal here in the Northeast.
A. Wherever you are, it’s the biggest problem—and most people don’t realize it. They will girdle the trunk of your tree right along the grass line, and it will be death, just like that. The best thing you can do when you plant your tree, whatever the time of year, is to put some protection from the ground up to about a foot high to ward off rabbits and mice and voles.
When your snow comes, the mice and voles will typically stay at the ground level, but rabbits will be on top of the snow banks. If you don’t protect your tree, rabbits will avail themselves of it.
Q. I use hardware-cloth collars–and I see on the SSE blog you have advice on that. Or pruning (even if someone’s not a master fruit-tree pruner, what MUST they reckon with at a minimum?).
Metal screening is good–any kind of a physical barrier is good.
Sometimes people will wrap just corrugated cardboard around the trunk and sometimes insects will tunnel into that and hibernate, and you can take that off in the spring and dispose of it, and you lose of some of some insect problems. It’s kind of a nice thing to have.
Q. But for the mice, voles, rabbits—something chew-proof?
A. They will gnaw through anything much less. There are plastic guards available that you can put around your trees easily, and they work really well.
[A complete blog post by Dan on winter protection of fruit trees is at this link.]
A. My mother was a Home Ec teacher, as they were called in those days, and she taught her sons to bake, so we would not starve depending on our marital situation or employment prospects. We could at least feed ourselves.
She taught me to make a very mean apple pie. I never bake an apple pie without at least two varieties in it. I like to choose one that’s dense, and will stay firm, as slices, and one that will cook down for the sauce to fill in the gap around it.
I pack them just full of apples; I don’t make just a shallow little pie. It’s probably 3 inches higher in the center than it is at the edges when I start.
I love using red-fleshed apples to put in among the slices to give it color.
It’s a simple recipe—I use a lard crust, the old-fashioned way. Get out there are make yourself a pie—it’s a wonderful thing.
[Get Dan’s apple pie recipe, photo above.]
Q. Two kinds of apples: good idea.
A. You can kind of tell the difference between them. If you hold up an apple, you can see it has a certain heft for its size. The denser, heavier apples are the ones that will typically stay firm, while the lighter apples…
Q. …higher water content.
A. Yes. They will cook down typically.
Q. Though I know ID’ing old trees is tricky business, I think people imagine in this DNA age that they submit a sample and it gets ID’d, voila!
A. That would be nice. [Laughter.] But what we’d need to establish is the genetic background, so we know if we have a variety true to name. Then people could send us leaf samples, and we could assay those, and then have it identified. But the problem is getting the correct baseline.
Q. The correct baseline, as in a database of all the varieties to compare it to?
A. Yes, the original genetic material of each one to make the comparison against.
Q. So for the moment when you find a “new” old apple and you want try to identify it, what happens?
A. I try to figure out how old the tree was; where was it grown; what are the typical market apples of that timeframe. Learning the little variations that the local nurseries of the area may have had also would also help. Little by little, you can start to figure it out.
I always tell people: I can tell you what it isn’t. And we work backwards from there.
Q. Out of 20,000 that once existed, and 5,000 that you think exist now—so 4,999 that you’ll tell me it isn’t until we get down to the one. [Laughter.] You’re very funny, Dan Bussey—and thank you for all this.
SEED SAVERS’ list of 40 apples available for custom grafting and delivery a year from this spring is at this link, if you want to plant a little bit of history. Above, year-old trees await their new homes. Below, a graft made in a young tree.
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