An heirloom apple is one that is grown from open pollination (pollinated by natural forces–bees, the wind) from a line of trees that have been in existence at least 100 years. New England in general, and Vermont in particular, is home to a great many such varieties. Now is the time of year when the harvest is in, and many small farms encourage visitors to pick their own, or sample an assortment of varities from their farmstand.
The association of apples with romance, beauty, temptation, immortality, and sensuality is a theme in cultures all over the globe. In Norse, Icelandic, Babylonian, Celtic, and Roman myths, gods eat apples to preserve their immortality (an apple a day keeps the doctor away), suitors use apples to achieve a conquest, women conceive with the help of magical apples, and heroes fall from grace because they couldn’t resist the temptation of a perfect fruit.
The British puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries held fast to the virtues of thrift and self-sufficiency, so when they left England for America, they took apples with them. In 1629, Captain John Smith wrote that apples “prospered exceedingly” in Jamestown’s coastal climate. The first new American apple variety that emerged from a Boston orchard was called Blaxton’s Yellow Sweeting. For early colonists, apples weren’t just a sweet table fruit. They were the source of cider vinegar, which was used in preserving. They provided hard apple cider to drink, and from cider came distilled ciderjack, which was used as a spirit, a preservative, and an anesthetic. With American independence in 1776, the western migration began and apples traveled right along with the early settlers. In the early 1800’s, a young missionary named John Chapman left Massachusetts and headed west by canoe into the nascent territories of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Illinois, and Indiana to preach the Good Word and spread the gospel of apples. He planted trees everywhere he went, earning the nickname Johnny Appleseed.
Here at the October Country Inn, heirloom apple trees dot the grounds. Two of our trees are at least 100 years old, and typically shower us with apples. What we or our neighbors and guests don’t use, the local deer and other wildlife do. About a month ago, a patch of fallen apples near the road had been sitting on the ground for a week or so when a young racoon showed up one afternoon to sample the freshly fermented fruit. It must have gotten a bit of a buzz because it ran around in circles, and rolled on the ground for a while, and then curled up for a snooze down by the barn. Heirloom apples seem to be a favorite with the local wildlife as well.