Bobbing for yesterday’s apples

“Everyone loves apples: Democrats and Republicans, saints and sinners,” says Tom Brown, a noted heritage-apple hunter based in Clemmons, N.C.

If Brown’s right, Western North Carolina must have traditionally observed a veritable love fest every autumn. Not so long ago, Buncombe County and environs were still home to numerous apple orchards. Wilma Penland and Gerri Neville, both of the Reems Creek Valley, remember at least five local orchards. According to Penland, nearly all her neighbors had at least one apple tree in their yards — even town dwellers. Her father worked in an apple orchard, and most people knew how to graft. At home, they made applesauce, apple-peel jelly, dried apples and cider.

Every fall, Gerri Neville’s family would slice apples and spread them out on newspaper to dry. After the apples dried, they were hung in a cloth bag in a cool place. The family then wrapped each apple slice in newspaper and stored the lot of them in underbed boxes till Christmastime. “The whole bedroom would smell like apples,” she remembers.

Neville earned her first paycheck picking bushels and bushels of apples, collecting $2.50 for a full day’s work. “Believe me, that was good money,” she says.

The majority of today’s apples are bred for sweetness, bruise resistance, shelf life and cosmetic perfection. Once upon a time, the rural upper South had a wealth of different apple trees. Most homesteads had a number of varietals that served different purposes and matured at different times, providing a broad range of colors, sizes, shapes, tastes and textures. These multipurpose fruits were canned, cooked, dried, fed to livestock and transformed into vinegar, brandy and cider.

Any pre-1930 (some say pre-1900) apple is considered an heirloom, or heritage, apple. There are a number of people in WNC who collect, plant or just enjoy eating heirloom apples. Heirloom-apple detective Tom Brown searches out antique apple varieties hither, thither and yon. As many as four days a week, Brown can be found tramping through the mountains and foothills of North Carolina and surrounding states. Since 1999, he’s managed to collect more than 625 varieties of heritage apples.

While scouting antique apples, Brown meets all kinds of folks and hears all sorts of stories. “It’s fun detective work that leads you to unpredictable places,” he says. A recent roundabout search for the ‘Black Beauty’ apple led Tom to a pile of apples on somebody’s washing machine. The apples had come from Junior Johnson, famous racecar driver and former moonshiner. That led to a visit with Johnson, whom Brown describes as “a very nice and generous man.” Turns out Johnson had 17 ‘Black Beauty’ trees in his pasture.

Brown’s personal favorites are ‘Pumpkin Sweet’, a medium-to-large apple boasting a yellow-and-rust color scheme and named for its delicious sweet taste; ‘Forward Sour’, a medium-to-large, whitish-yellow fruit from Georgia’s Rabun County that’s good for cooking and eating; and ‘Junaluska’, a late yellow with a rich sub-acid taste. Rediscovered by Brown and named for the famous Cherokee chief, the Junaluska apple is believed to be derived from one of the chief’s own trees.

Penland and Neville remember — and still enjoy — some of the heritage apples that their neighbors and relatives grew. The ‘June’ was a popular small, red apple with very white flesh. ‘Indian Sweet’ apples were made for frying. ‘Early Harvest’ made good applesauce and pies, as did the huge, greenish ‘Horse’ and ‘Summer Rambo’. Neville’s dad would bring ‘Sheepnose’ apples down from way up the mountain when he went hunting. They were maroon-red with a sharp point on them.

Time is running out for rare and lost apples. But thanks to Tom Brown and fellow enthusiasts, many of these old-time favorites are again popping up in back yards and farms around Western North Carolina.

[Ruth Uffelman’s adventures in gardening have run the gamut from organic market farming to tiny urban flowerbeds to barely keeping the grass cut. Known to be dangerous with a pair of Felco pruners, she works at a local garden center.]

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