I was watching Bunker not so I could learn to graft but so I could plant a tree of my own. The one look, and taste, I got of a Black Oxford at the house where Bunker spends the winter—in Concord, on Thoreau Court—made me start dreaming, even if my own experiments at gardening have been striking mostly for their inverse relationship between enthusiasm and results. Like a second marriage, planting a tree would be a triumph of hope over experience.
I asked Bunker for advice and more tastes. He was about to return to Maine to collect scion wood—he does it in early March, at the end of the trees’ dormancy—and start preparations for the annual April shipping frenzy. The ideal time to plant is on a warm, cloudy May morning. He found more than 10 varieties in his Maine root cellar, all of them still edible, for me to try.
The apples that found homes in New England backyards would last much of the winter in cold, damp storage (a root cellar should be about 34 degrees and have about 80 percent humidity, roughly like a refrigerator produce drawer), and were resistant to local insects and blight. Commercially valuable varieties had these virtues, and also looks and durability—the requisites whose reductio ad absurdum is the Red Delicious.
To be fair, flavor was never very high on anyone’s list. Guides like the revered 1905 two-volume Apples of New York, by S. A. Beach, are “terrible” at describing flavor, Bunker told me, adding that he still keeps copies in both Palermo and Concord. Apple guides seldom go beyond “tart,” “sweet,” “good,” and “best,” he said; he wants to take a wine course to help with the always vexing question of how to describe flavors. He already provides sprightly descriptions in his annual catalog, which features a rotating cast of a few dozen apples he sells every year. (You can download it at www.fedcoseeds.com/trees.htm. Another helpful and very readable reference is Ben Watson’s Cider, Hard and Sweet, and a good general resource is www.applejournal.com.) To illustrate the sins of the fathers, Bunker brought back a Ben Davis—the Red Delicious of its day, known for its beauty and indestructibility and shipped by the barrel to England, an avid consumer. Mainers knew the Ben Davis as an apple that, as Virginia Dowe, the owner of a country store, remarked to Bunker, “tastes like cardboard in November and cardboard in May.” To me it seemed a firm, less-juicy Mac, an apple I’ve never had much use for.
Other apples had interesting hints of vanilla and tropical fruits, especially pineapple—hints that are prized in today’s vogue for heirloom apples but that reminded me of the reservations I have about many tropical fruits, which are valuable more for their exotic looks than for their too-delicate flavor. I want an apple that tastes like one. Like, say, the Pomme Grise, a wonderfully fragrant, meaty little dessert apple I couldn’t stop eating, with a pretty, dove-gray russeted skin. I always gravitate toward russeted apples—meaning those with a dulled, rough skin—as they generally have spicy, superior flavor. I asked Bunker for all the Golden Russets he could spare from the stock he’d brought back, for their exemplary russeted virtues and alluring hint of clove.
That preference led me to the apple Bunker wanted me to plant, and away from the one I wanted to—the stunning Black Oxford, which, if pressed, he admits is his favorite. Even in late winter, it had quintessential apple flavor. But many factors go into deciding which tree to plant, Bunker reminded me: when the apple is at its best (anywhere from August until March; winter apples come into their own in storage), the tree’s resistance to disease, and whether you want to make pies, sauce, or cider, or just eat apples out of hand.
And, of course, a tree will take several years to bear. The only attitude to take, Bunker tells novices, is to treat a fruit tree like your own child, enjoying every stage of its growth. “When my daughter was five,” he said, “was I thinking, When is she going to have kids?” A tree will take babying at the beginning: a sunny spot, some rock powder for the soil, weekly watering (Bunker gives encouraging and complete planting and care instructions in his catalog). But after that, aside from watching for pests and wrapping some window screen around the base of the trunk every winter, Bunker promised just the joys of a new parent, watching the “leafing out” the very first spring, the flowering the second or third, and steady growth with minimal care (“three hours a year for the deluxe treatment”) until I would see fruit the fourth or fifth. True, not everyone who plants a tree gets to taste its fruits. But somebody will. And planting one will repay future generations, Bunker says, just as the farmers of Palermo gave him his life’s work.
The usual final ship date for apple trees is April 30. Fedco has an annual sale, with all the leftover stock and experimental apples, which draws visitors to Clinton, Maine, from all over the Northeast (it is three and a half hours from Boston and an hour and a quarter from Portland); this year’s is May 2–3. If you’re unable to order a tree, you can start preparing the soil (Bunker gives directions) and set to dreaming with next year’s catalog. And you can mark your calendar for Common Ground, a country fair in Unity, Maine, that will celebrate its 32nd year on the weekend of September 19. Here Bunker gives away apples by the basket, trying to lure visitors into discovering and perhaps planting heirlooms—like the Canadian Strawberry, which a visitor to the fair importuned Bunker to come and try. The apple was, he says, one of the best he’s ever tasted, and now Bunker both sells and grows them. It doesn’t keep, so you have to go to the fair to try one. I intend to.
And for my own future generations? Given my nonexistent gardening skill, Bunker told me to stick to an apple that has always grown well in my own native soil—always good advice, and no matter that I grew up somewhere else. “Where we are is our heritage,” he says. So I’ve ordered an apple that originated in the 1600s one town away from Jamaica Plain, where I live—the Roxbury Russet, one of the three big apples of the 19th century. If it’s anything like any other russet I’ve tasted, I know I’ll be happy. And I’m already planning the next: another of the big three, the Rhode Island Greening (the third is the Baldwin, still widely grown but handsome, stolid, and dumb). A beautiful blue-green, like a Granny Smith with character, it’s still the pie apple par excellence, and the one I grew up with. It’s the apple I want to give the people I’ll never meet.