Names Of Apples

Central Question: What's in an apple's name?

A giant, broken, deformed tree sits in the middle of a hundred-year-old apple orchard in Occidental, California. It has been split in two, twice, and its trunks bend down to the ground and then up again; it looks like a leafy, rough-barked octopus. No less than 60 other varieties of apple are grafted to its hospitably misshapen trunks. It acts as a living map of pomaceous nomenclature, a complete inventory of the other trees found on its sloping slice of Vinegar Ridge. People know Sonoma County for wine and redwoods, but it knows itself for dirty rivers, bittersharps, lichen, and childhood memories of picking lunch off a branch.

On the omnitree, each sapling graft shoots straight up into the sky and has its name stamped into a square of snipped can-metal tied around its neck with pale green twine. For all the visual glory of the fruit farm (where in the spring ephemeral blossom, salt fog, and spotted fawn could break a poet), the heirlooms' appellations themselves demand attention. They're tiny language acts, heavy with history, fascinating, juicy.

Shapes and colors run through the list of them like an animal in a wet forest, that is, intentionally: White Pearmain, Rhode Island Greening, Twenty Ounce, Burford Red Flesh. Other names point outside the apple itself: Northern Spy, Edelsborsdorfer, Foxwhelp, the Hewe's Virginia Crab once found on Thomas Jefferson's plantation. The two most important Blacks pack an extra k's kick, Arkansas and Kingston. Several apples on the tree's biologic orrery speak French, and local cidermakers say Muscat de Bernay is Pinot Noir to them. Calville Blanc d'Or doesn't juice, it eats out-of-hand and renders snowy applesauce, but sweet as it may be, it won't compare to the legendary eater, that cult hit Ashmead's Kernel. The orchardist speaks them all with a technician's easy precision; they're his roommates, in a way.

So how did we get here, to bland, to a generation who grew up thinking there were three kinds of apple: Pippin, Red Delicious, and Golden Delicious? It was mad men, obsessed with fast and easy, trying to pare down the purchase-foiling tangle of words, words, words. Convenience, mid-20th-century, was king, whereas creativity, variation, and any old-fashioned notion of quality was quaint but in the way. The era that led to a president of the United States saying "If you've seen one redwood tree, you've seen 'em all" also gave us, we can be forgiven for imagining, a focus group who could and would enthusiastically pronounce the name "Red Delicious," but not so much "Niedzwetzkyana." More than likely, this fictional focus group was made up of members of that ideal consumer variety, the busy housewife of the 1960s, for whom cleanliness and homogeneity were, if you think about it, a rebellion against the truly evil diseases and bone-twisting drudgery of her own mother's life. Bleach it, she thought, no matter what it is. An apple's an apple.

But for us, who are not only modernly secure in our general health comparatively with the 1920s, but who are also poet-adjacent and food-curious, these names might mean so much. They mean specificity, and we've come to know via heirloom tomatoes that specificity can be gruntingly delicious. Does every fruit and vegetable and animal and salt have a list of specificities that have the flavor potential to grab us by the lizard cortex? Apparently, apples do and their names say so.

The graft tree will bear the fruit of all of the above this year, plus Yellow Bellflower, Pitmaston Pineapple, the much sought Tremlett's Bitter, and the galactic-sounding White Astrachan. It will look like a static firework with so many different colors of fruit hanging on it. The Pearmains, Deliciouses, and Gravensteins are multiple but can't outnumber the Pippins, who're seven in total. The Pippins' names go back to taxonomies of another time, are rooted in Old World geography: Ribston of Yorkshire (which could have been Knaresborough), Kerry Irish, and Fearnswhere now they're proud of their rutabagas. Their names wouldn't even exist in that old world, because "pippin" is from "pip," seed. It means "seedling," or "a thing from a seed," and can be used as another name for "tree," plain and simple, since in a sense trees start out as seedlings. Little-known is that most apple trees aren't, in point of fact, from seeds; they're mostly clones, clippings grafted to rootstock, making a pippin is something special, a youth but also a grandfather. Chad tells me the original Golden Delicious died recently, for example, and it takes me a minute to figure that out. Somehow out of all that we got "Pippin," an apple and a word that means a bland crunch waxed in a supermarket. Sad, yes, and inaccurate, but Chad isn't alone in his enthusiasm for good old apples.

Because they're on the rise, our friends the apple freaks, letting their flags fly over farmers' markets and collectively owned grocery stores all around the nation; seek the strange names, and you will find them. In the graft tree’s home place, a spate of young farmers, sustainability enthusiasts, and wary hippies are fomenting a resurgence in the production of hard cider, the kind you drink like beer or wine; the brews tend to dry French in inspiration rather than British and sweet-tart. These drinks require apples in order to exist, but not eaters, not any fruit you have or should put in your mouth raw. Instead, their complicated flavors are built from bitters, sweets, sharps, bittersweets, bittersharps, and more bitters, the best of which you just read the names. Seek, find. The graft tree's big arms grow D'Arcy Spices and Stayman Winesaps; one called Seek-No-Further.


Orchardists: Chad and Andrea Frick. Tree names left out of review: Black Twig, Snow Apple (Fameuse), Kandil Sinap, Transcendent Crab, Swaar. Unidentified trees, as they are called by Chad: "the wild tree by the old homesite," "the mystery tree by the front gate," "the mystery foamy yellow one that tastes soooo good." Number of varieties in the 80-100 year-old category: five. Place where you can buy artisan dry cider made from these apples: Tilted Shed Ciderworks - Small batch fermented ciders from local organic apples.

© Ira Joel Haber

Hiya Swanhuyser is a writer from San Francisco. Her work has appeared in magazines, alt-weeklies, online publications, and, more importantly, the Bolinas Hearsay News. Her series "Backstage Heroes" can be found on the KQED Arts blog and she is pursuing an MFA degree in nonfiction at the University of the Best City Ever.

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