Thursday 26 September 2013

Johnny Appleseed

John Chapman was born in Leominster, Mass, on 26 Sept 1774.  He has come down to us as a semi-mythical Johnny Appleseed, spitting apple seeds into hedgerows all over the mid-west of the New Republic and thereby feeding starving settlers for generations to come.  It's a bit like that, but not really, he certainly planted orchards in Pennsylvania, the first in the evocatively named Brokenstraw Creek, and later in Ohio. Orchards from cuttings were/are far more likely to grow up to bear edible (or drinkable) fruit. Propagating from seed is much more of a lottery as the genes get all mixed up when a Daddy Apple loves a Mummy Apple very much.  On the Frontier, the apples were not used much for eating but rather for crushing and fermenting into cider which was an integral part of the diet as beer was for William Cobbett's yeomen at about the same time the other side of The Pond. Chapman died of testicular cancer in 1845 aged 70, probably near Fort Wayne Indiana, so he was still traveling West when he went west.

Ireland has a similar story but it's about saving from destruction rather than starting anew.  Dr Keith Lamb was born in 1919 and got his doctorate on the back of the dozens of indigenous varieties of apple Malus domestica that he collected in the 1940s.  He got on his bicycle and went all over the country from UCD, following leads and his nose and bringing back cuttings which he propagated in the grounds of Albert College in Glasnevin.  In those days, every county, indeed different sections of each county. had its own local apple varieties which the local people liked. One can exaggerate the micro-climatic and ecotypic advantages of a given variety being in the place where Dr Lamb found it.  Nevertheless the variety of varieties was evidence of considerable cultural differentiation within our New Republic.  The very names enrich our experience of the natural and culinary world: "Honey Ball, Greasy Pippin, Lady’s Finger, Maiden’s Blush, and Widow’s Friend".  Albert College, at that time the seat of UCD's Department of Agriculture, had a couple of hundred hectares available and accorded Dr Lamb a small corner for his heritage orchard.  In 1964, UCD acquired and started to develop their Belfield Campus in the South of the city, so they sold most of the Albert College estate to Dublin Corporation for housing - including the infamous Ballymun Flats that were knocked down a few years ago as unfit for human habitation.  This is all fine - people must be housed.  But nobody knew what to do with Dr Lamb's apple trees, so they were bull-dozed into a corner and burned.  Very slow hand-clap, lads!

A generation later, Annie Appleseed - Anita Hayes - woke up to that fact that the gene pool of Irish apples was being squeezed through a very strait gate.  The Hayes family used to live in the scut end of South Co Carlow a very few miles from Chateau Bob. Anita started her life's work of pulling irreplacable genetic combinations & generations of developed disease resistance out of the bonfires that were flaring up across the country as people started buying Golden Delicious from France because they were so Golden, so Delicious, so cheap, so uniform and so berluddy boring.  It beggars belief that people would drive into town and buy apples when they can nip over the wall and scrump them from their elderly farming neighbours.  Anita left Carlow in 1996 (at about the same time we blew in) and started Irish Seed Savers near Scarriff, Co Clare.  I doubt if Anita goes places by 1940s bicycle, but she has certainly done amazing work to preserve the genetic heritage, the gene-bank of Irish plants - and not just apples. A few years ago, we sent them cuttings from the five, all different, leggy and ancient, apple-trees that we have at the bottom of our haggard.

More recently Alan Ryan has driven forward a project Restoring an early 19th Century walled garden belonging to Tintern Abbey in South County Wexford.  Rather than trying to save what was still in existence 70 years ago as Keith Lamb did or saving a fraction of what was then left to us after two generations of neglect and incremental loss like Anita Hayes, Alan Ryan has tasked the Colclough Walled Garden team to pull apple varieties out of the very maw of history: he is not interested in Victorian breeds and varieties - they are a) too modern and b) anachronistic for the spirit of the place which he and his team a re-creating.  You have to admire that sort of obsessive attention to detail.  And it's not just apples for him either.

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