"There’s the joint,” John Bunker said, pointing to a neat line circling what looked like a long twig on an apple tree. The line, which marked the most recent year’s growth, would have been invisible to me. Once he pointed it out, the deep mulberry red of the scion wood, as the new growth is called, was indeed distinct from the increasingly dulled chestnut of the twig, branch, and trunk.
Faint as it was, to Bunker’s practiced eye the line might as well have been illuminated, and the new growth traffic-light red. His life’s mission, as he discovered it 30 years ago, is to find and rescue apple varieties from the backyard orchards that once were part of every New England farm. He is an apple whisperer, locating the lone strip of live bark on a hundred-year-old-tree, detecting the ruddy new growth that would elude others, and grafting the captured scion wood onto a healthy tree to bring what might be a wonderful old apple back to life.
Bunker tracks down not just very old trees but very old farmers who know the one tree in town bearing the prized local apple named for the town or the family that grew it. Two of his most helpful sources have been apple collectors named Earland Goodhue and Francis Fenton, who are each about to turn 92. People travel from remote wooded parts of Maine (which is to say most of it), the state where Bunker has lived for 40 years, to present him with orphan apples from trees on their property. Like found pets, the neglected trees seem to beg for adoption. Someone once planted and pruned them, and taught succeeding generations how to tend them. But then a link was broken, and the apple lost its name. Now visitors line up at country fairs to ask Bunker the name of their apple, and in the winter months boxes come in the mail bearing more mystery apples from all over the Northeast, for a total of 300 apple challenges a year.
People know Bunker as an apple man because he grafts and sells about 10,000 fruit trees a year—only full-sized trees, not the high-yielding dwarves that populate today’s “pedestrian orchards,” which are easy to prune and pick but fragile of health, shallow of root, and relatively short-lived. This is Bunker’s way of carrying on the largely abandoned heritage he found when he bought part of an old farm in the town of Palermo with two friends and moved onto it within a month of finishing college. He had spent his boyhood in Concord, Massachusetts, imagining a Thoreauvian future for himself (he lived a short hike from Walden Pond); when he went to summer camp on an island in Maine, he knew where that future would be.
His vocation arrived in a bushel basket, when he was managing a food cooperative in the town of Belfast. A man named Ira Proctor walked in one day to ask if the co-op would sell some of his apples on consignment. Bunker had never seen their like: apples the shape of a perfect McIntosh (a variety widely planted in Maine only after a calamitous freeze killed more than a million trees in 1934) but colored a lustrous dark cordovan, purple-black with firm, cream-colored flesh. The flavor was refreshing, smooth, and all apple—not cloying and mealy, as Macs can be, and not firm and juicy but as flavorful as cardboard, like Red Delicious. It was not a sour “quick spitter,” as Maine farmers call many apples, nor light-flavored with faint hints of pineapple and banana, like many of the heirlooms Bunker had encountered in his wanderings. This was a great apple, and a very beautiful one besides. The name was Black Oxford, Proctor told him, for the county where it grew: it originated in Paris, Maine, around 1790. Bunker took them all, and resolved to grow some for himself.
He knew he wouldn’t find Black Oxfords in any catalog. Apples do not “come true” from seed, so anyone who wants to taste a wild apple again must learn to graft it. The millions of seedlings that grew from the seeds colonists brought from England—varieties meant for hard cider, not for eating—gave rise to what Bunker calls the “greatest breeding experiment” in history. Johnny Appleseed, whose real name was John Chapman, did not graft any of the apples he brought with him on his treks westward from New England, because his Swedenborgian Church viewed grafting exactly as many religions today view genetic engineering: only God could create an apple. (He sold them, as seedlings.) But farmers all over the United States did graft and name the apples they liked, sharing them with neighbors and friends and sometimes registering the names in order to sell them. By the end of the 19th century, Bunker says, nurseries offered hundreds of the more than 10,000 named American varieties, some of which became popular exports to Europe (which was doing intense pomology work of its own, particularly France).
A century later, the intense work was in discovering the origin of apples. Much of it was led by a horticulturist named Phil Forsline, based at the Agricultural Research Service in Geneva, New York. Forsline’s expeditions to Kazakhstan, where he followed up on the work of the legendary Russian plant geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, made headlines in the 1990s, when it seemed that he was hot on the trail of the garden of Eden. The history of this research, including Vavilov’s torture and death in a prison and the story of Aimak Djangaliev, the conflicted man who carried on his work, is elegantly described in Frank Browning’s 1998 Apples. Browning, a correspondent for NPR, grew up on a commercial family orchard in Kentucky; the book reflects his lifelong interest in the world’s apples, and includes much on Forsline’s work. Last year Bunker wrote and published an engaging account of his own searches, Not Far From the Tree, to benefit the Palermo Historical Society.
Like many amateur and professional American pomologists, Bunker followed Forsline’s research, and as he launched his own, he sometimes asked for scion wood from the Geneva lab, which is generous in supplying it. But his experiments in planting apples for himself and for friends didn’t go very well. The trouble, he realized, was that he was using trees “from away,” ordered from a big national supplier. The advent of the Black Oxford convinced him to abandon apples from anywhere outside his adopted state—and to abandon, too, any dreams he might have spun of following in Forsline’s adventurous footsteps. His Kazakhstan would be the universe of Palermo and the family farms abandoned all over the state. He might find apples as great as the Black Oxford. He would certainly find apples that knew how to grow in their own soil.
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.