I’m writing this with a huge grin on my face — still glowing after returning from Maine Apple Camp 2022. One of my favorite gatherings of all within the apple and cider world. Check out the latest Instagram post for more details. The sound of rain outside the windows sounds like the sweetest music, as we’re in a severe drought. We are expecting a little less than a half inch. We have only had one other rain event like that this whole season.
It was six years ago that I penned The Wild Apple Forager’s Guide, my first book, as part of my thesis work at Hampshire College. In the introduction, I detail the various challenges that apple trees contend with outside the realm of human intervention. The whole point is to urge the reader to realize that wild apple trees growing in the margins of our world, without the ‘management’ that we are conditioned to believe the cultivated apple tree needs in order to thrive. When we observe and engage with wild apples for real, they can guide us toward a better culture of growing and using their unique and delicious fruit.
This year, I am finding myself hearkening to 2016 quite a bit. Many of the same climatic conditions are repeating (which I will describe below in great detail). It was in 2016 that I began building a catalogue of varieties that seemed especially well-suited to handling–even thriving–within the conditions of an unstable and inhospitable climate where droughts/floods & novel pest and disease pressure would be the new ‘normal’ by careful obervation of trees in the wild all over New England. 6 years into this search, the catalogue has grown considerably, including more noteworthy wild seedlings to follow and observe, and new data being collected with these noteworthy varieties being examined within cultivated orchard spaces.
In reflection on these past 6 years, the varieties in the Gnarly Pippins catalogue continue to be shining stars, and we’re seeing more and more promising signs from them as they start affecting positive change within experimental blocks in cultivated orchards. Moreover, the ongoing project of the Wild and Seedling Pomological Exhibitions, held on the first Friday of November every year, brings a wider audience into the picture, sharing hundreds of varieties of wild apples and pears — from the personal catalogues of hundreds of different fruit explorers — into one place for review by the public and official introduction via the publications (Vol. 2 forthcoming!)
With harvest 2022 closing in, I’m feeling so happy and thrilled and eager to continue doing this work. The results have been so promising thus far, showing commercial growers that growing healthy trees without the same chemical dependency is possible by utilizing locally adapted varieties. Read below for a crop and condition report in my observations of trees –both wild and cultivated — for this year so far.
WILD APPLE EXHIBITION UPDATES
The WILD AND SEEEDLING POMOLOGICAL EXHIBITION IS BACK on NOVEMBER 4TH, 2022
It is an important year for fruit explorers and foragers to be out in the wild doing the good work. As I will detail below, this has been an exceptionally hard year for apples so far in many places, so it’s very very important for everyone to see what varieties of fruit will be glowing up this time around.
The official event flyer is also posted on the Gnarly Pippins Instagram page shortly, and paper copies will be distributed locally.
HOW TO SUBMIT FRUIT TO THE EXHIBITION
– Send an email to MATT@GNARLYPIPPINS.COM with the following info:
- Your name + the name of a farm, cidery, or organization that you would like to be associated with, and the town and state that you come from.
- The name(s) of ALL apples and pears you plan to submit (even a provisional name will do, e.g., “Sarah’s Big Green” or “Stonewall Sweet”). Call it exactly what you refer to the apple or pear as. The maximum is 6 different varieties per entrant. Each entry MUST have a name.
- A brief description of each apple or pear. Include information about the physical attributes of the apple, flavor, what it’s used for, the town and state that the mother tree is from, if it’s been grafted and grown ex-situ (in any instance other than the original tree), and any other tidbits that you think are interesting or important. They will be evaluated using a pomological rubric to register all the esoteric information about the physical characteristics, so don’t get too hung up on that stuff. What I need from YOU is the background of the apple. All the info you can give that someone wouldn’t know by seeing and tasting it.
– Plan to set aside enough exemplar fruit! We need a minimum of 6 apples or pears of each variety, but having 8 or 10 of each variety is much better, since we hope to have many attendants viewing and tasting small samples of each, while also having enough to photograph each one (perhaps the “nicest,” whatever that means) and document its characteristics across a modest sample size.
PLEASE CONTRIBUTE ! This exhibition needs YOU in order to be great !
If you plan to attend the event on FRIDAY NOVEMBER 4th, then submissions need to be in hand by 9AM on that day. If you can’t be there in time, or do not plan to come to the event but still want to have your favorite wildies recognized, please mail / ship your apples or pears through the mail to Gnarly Pippins HQ the week before the event. When you send your email to me with the above listed information, I will reply to you with the shipping address!
Please note that ‘repeat’ varieties that were sent in for previous Pomological Exhibitions are very much welcomed to be featured in the exhibition and tasting event itself, but will not be included in the forthcoming print publication.
TIPS FOR SHIPPING APPLES & PEARS
It is possible to ship fruit safely! That is the best way to go! Here are a few very basic tips if you don’t know where to start:
- Find a container that your exemplar fruits will fit in. If it is a rigid container, make sure that any empty spaces are filled with padding to prevent bruising (bubble wrap, crumpled brown paper, packing peanuts or some other type of packing material).
- Apple seasonality is very variable, so send your varieties through the mail shortly after harvest. Early season varieties with poor storage quality should be sent quite soon after harvest, while later season varieties which keep better may be sent the week prior to the event. Be This is a suggestion, not a requirement! We want the fruit to be as close in condition to how you’d normally be using it, right?
- Plan to ship early in the week (Mondays & Tuesdays are ideal) so the apples don’t get stuck in a postal warehouse over the weekend. Monday November 1st, 2021 would be the best day to ship! All accessions of fruit will be refrigerated upon arrival until the event.
- Ship fast to minimize transit time! It can be expensive to send things like this through the mail in a hurry. However, the US Postal Service is often the cheapest and most reliable if you can work on their schedule. Priority mail from USPS is a great go-to. Their boxes will fit your apples with ease, and 1-3 business days is well within the desired time window. Aim for 2 days transit time, 3 is OK too.
LET’S DO IT !
PROGRESS ON THE PROCEEDINGS
POMOLGICAL SERIES : WILD APPLE EXHIBITION VOL. 2
An update on the long-awaited 2nd volume of our book chronicling the 2nd Annual Wild and Seedling Pomological Exhibition ! It is most definitely in the works! It is also, most definitely, taking longer than expected to get it through the design and finishing phase. My collaborator William Mullan (@pomme_queen) and I have been chipping away at what amounts to a redesign of the book’s template with the expert help of the master, Andrea Trabucco Campos. The layout and design of the book is going to make this volume (and future ones) a whole lot better of a book than the first volume, and the revamp of the design makes it even more of a visually engaging and collectible item. It will be a hugely meaningful release for us, and I’m proud of the work we have done so far to get the manuscript of over 140 apples done, trimming down selections, revising & editing three different times to make sure this thing is perfect. Thank you all so much for your patience in the release of this volume and for your support in making it happen in the first place. A pre-order for this book will be announced within the next month or two, and will be hopefully publicized widely on Instagram and other social media outlets, among other places. My sincere hope is that it will be available for an in-person release at this year’s Exhibition on November 4th.
The Challenge of 2022
So far, this season has been a tremendously interesting year in the orchard. The precursory conditions of having had a very strong cropyear the Fall before (2021 was a banner year for apples in New England) and a very wimpy, weak Winter followed by an early Spring set the stage for a year with certain challenges. Lighter natural bud set (due to prevailing biennialism in uncultivated trees) and late Spring frost issues create the archetypal challenges for orchardists. Most growers and wild stands of apple trees alike are seeing more pointed challenges this year than in many seasons in recent memory. There are murmurings of 2016 recurring in my mind: a year when the combined features of drought, bienniali«sm (“off-year”), and elevated pest and disease pressure caused a terrible outcome for the majority of apple trees. I wrote about it in the introductory section of The Wild Apple Forager’s Guide. It was a rough year, but one of paramount value for fruit explorers interested in observing climate-resilient selections. In such inhospitable conditions, the few trees that are able to thrive and bear fruit well are of great value in pursuit of further analysis and ex-situ cultivation. A large handful of the all-stars of the Gnarly Pippins catalog, currently in multiple experimental growing sites, were first introduced in a year like this.
Such music to see apple trees yoked up when the others are having a hard time staying afloat.
BADNESS IN 2022: WHAT CAUSES IT
- Late Frost
- Apples that bloom late are worth their weight in gold during a year struck by late frost. The delicate floral elements are undeveloped during the really cold stretch of the bloom process, and tend to be safe when early-to-blossom varieties would be destroyed by cold. This is often the difference of narrow time margins and temperature thresholds within 1 degree Fahrenheit, sometimes less. Apples blooming in the later part of bloom period ( on the FT scale, demonstrating ‘flowering time’ on a scale through 1-6, blooming FT4-FT6 are considered safe from late frost. Genetic combinations as well as environment and microclimate determine this. Boisvert Bitter is one example of an exceedingly late blooming wild apple. Sometimes problems may lie ahead for late bloomers, as the temperatures warming during the time they are in full bloom presents vulnerability to the next (and perhaps greatest) major challenge of 2022: fireblight.
- Fireblight: Blossom Blight, Shoot Strike, Trauma blight
- Fireblight is the scourge of orchardists. The bacteria Erwinia is responsible for this disease causing dieback, and can be severe enough in many cases to kill a tree in a season or two. If you think that’s startling, just consider that there are several ways that fireblight infection can show up. During blossom time, if temperatures are hot enough and with sufficient humidity, fireblight will enter the tree through its blossoms, affecting tree viability as well as crop production. Such is the issue for the form of ‘vertical resistance’ to late frost. Additionally, fireblight infects vegetative growing tips and areas of trauma, like those caused by messy pruning cuts, equipment or animal damage (tractors, bears, porcupines, locusts, etc.), or even hail, which is an increasingly common phenomenon during intense summer thunderstorms as the degree of severity of these storms increases due to human-caused climate change.
- Drought Stress : Gradual weakening of tree support mechanisms
- Imagine trying to hold a bushel of apples up that gets heavier every day and only get a tiny sip of water once every 2 weeks if you’re lucky. Not easy! Imagine what other things in your life may start slipping if that’s the case! You may lose track of your skincare or hair….or worse!
- Apple Scab: Ubiquitous in the environment normally, but with especially high humidity ( despite the drought, we are seeing RH values in the range of 70-80% recently, conditions like in SC or FL). This is enough moisture in the air to provide good conditions for all these pathogenic fungal and bacterial characters to thrive.
- Pest explosion: Oriental Fruit Moth, Borers, and the future of pest issues
- Oriental fruit moth (OFM) is a common issue in orchards. It often affects fruit as well as vegetative shoots. The larvae bore into succulent first year growth, causing tip dieback, often recognizable by a ‘flag’ of brown, crispy growth right at the growing tip, causing weak, forking lateral growth. This exposes the tree to infection of fireblight and scab over a longer window in the Summer due to delaying the formation of terminal buds because of repeated stimulation of new growth further down on the branches. Of course, the tender growing tips of any shoot are the most susceptible to disease. OFM is the worst this year that I’ve witnessed in 9 years of working in orchards in the region. OFM serves as an amplifier for some aforementioned issues, and has the added effect of slowing down growth of young trees. They can also overwinter inside fruit tree twigs, especially when winters are as mild as they have been, and will continue to be.
- Spotted Lanternfly and invasive tree pests who are currently moving northward on a track of establishing populations in the northeast are going to be a major issue for orchardists. Few or no organic spray options exist for controlling this pest. There are also no widespread avian species that will target spotted lanternfly specifically, since they are new to this ecosystem and the bird species have not co-evolved with them. They can defoliate an entire tree in hours, and will wreak havoc on trees when they are allowed to. Apparently chickens will eat them off of trees, but how do we keep the manure off the fruit? Lots of research and problem solving to be done with this pest.
NONE OF THESE THINGS ARE NEW. They are not novel issues. It is just an intensification of complicit factors that we are familiar with, and are not fully equipped to handle in responsible ways. We have to ensure the safety of food systems, the ecosystems they occupy, and our bodies, livelihoods, and spirit. (It is spirit-crushing to see one of these problems run amok and knock an entire orchard out. Truly spirit-crushing).
Summertime is when the worst of all the damage is plainly on display. There are synthetic strategies to combat all of these issues. Commercial growers are still going to have apples. There are still going to be chemical options for growers to use. There will be incredible amount of money headed into fighting lanternfly, developing solutions to treat the symptoms of a problem that will make growing apples even harder. These options are not going to help us slow down the factors causing these hardships in the first place. It will continue to stratify the environments in which we find apples in the landscape. An intensifying imbalance will form between privately-owned, commercially grown fruit, cultivated with a heavy influence of human and chemical intervention, and reduce the amount of unsprayed or naturally-produced apples that can be intentionally grown here in the east.
Marginal natural spaces (roadsides, alleyways, drainage ditches, mulch and compost piles, highway on/off ramps, wetlands, clearings along high tension electrical paths, etc.) are going to be the breeding grounds of the apples that we will be able to successfully grow in the future of our unstable and rapidly changing climate. Wild apples will be the most likely characters to display complex horizontal resistance that allows them to be truly resilient, contrasting the dominant paradigm of developing systems that need chemical intervention in order to succeed. Wild apples are doing just fine on their own in autonomous, no-humans-involved types of growing systems, with oriental fruit moth, fireblight, scab, cedar apple rust, marsonnina leaf spot, and the rest of this laundry list, running wild. Instead of planting poorly adapted varieties in systems isolated from their natural controls and checks ( systems with vertical or no resistances) we need to work harder on prioritizing climate-resilient genetics and growing diverse farm and garden ecosystems.
WHEN THE GOING GETS ROUGH, TOPWORK OR REPLACE ALL YOUR APPLE TREES TO LOCAL SEEDLING CULTIVARS FOUND BY COMMON TYPES OF FOLKS TO BE WELL-ADAPTED TO ‘LIFE ROUND HERE’ THAT SUIT YOUR TASTES AND THE NEEDS OF YOUR SURROUNDING ECOSYSTEM AND MARKET. YES I MEAN REPLACE THE EUROPEAN ONES TOO! IF YOU DON’T THINK SUCH A PERFECT VARIETY FOR YOU EXISTS, THEN YOU JUST HAVEN’T FOUND IT YET, OR BEEN TO THE ANNUAL WILD AND SEEDLING POMOLOGICAL EXHIBITION! IT IS REAL! IT WILL CHANGE THE WAY YOU THINK ABOUT GROWING APPLES…FOREVER! THE GOING IS ALREADY ROUGH AND IT WILL GET WORSE!
Horizontal Resistance: what makes ‘resilience’ in an apple tree? In an orchard?
A great friend of mine, Sam Bonney of Quivering Twig Horticulture, reminded me of the concept of there being two categories of resistance to pests and disease in plants: vertical and horizontal resistance. Vertical resistance is the less reliable, fallable form of resistance, which relies on one (often genetically inherited) factor. Horizontal resistance is the combination of multiple genetic factors acting to create resistance to a pathogen, blight, pest, etc. If you overlay this concept over to apples, we can use the omnipresent apple scab disease as a subject. The well-known PRI breeding cooperative gave way to many scab resistant apples which utilized the Vf gene, a widely studied genetic resistance to apple scab found in Malus floribunda, and later located and used in apple breeding. This gene is found in many of the commercially released PRI apples. This is an excellent trait and a venerable gene to favor for minimizing inputs in apple orchards. Less scab = less fungicide = more microbially diverse trees = happier microbiota = happier soil = happier orchard ecosystem. Anecdotally speaking, many farmers have reported many of these apples (GoldRush, Enterprise, Pristine) having some fallability in their resistance to scab; that the resistance given by Vf has worn off, in a way. This type of observation comes from growers within a range of management practices, including some who spray to control disease. Scab is an evolving organism, it has mutation and multiplicity on its side to wiggle around the monogenic resistance of the VF gene. The Vf gene is static, and grants tolerance of the apple scab to the trees in a fixed, unchanging pattern of genes. When the apple scab fungus detects a way to successfully infect GoldRush, there is no quick method that GoldRush can implement to resist that infection, unless there are other mechanisms at work, whether they’re genetically inherited, environmentally induced, or having to do with some other ecological relationship.
By using apple scab as a subject to demonstrate the issues with vertical plant resistance and its exchange of short-term benefit for long term uncertainty, we get to apply the same ‘exchange’ with respect to the entire laundry list of pathogens and disorders that apple trees, especially in the year 2022, are afflicted by.
Shouts out to Sam Bonney for bringing this paradigm back into my headspace for to help put things into focus once again. I am so excited to forage this year and see which trees are out there doing the most.
I hope you’ll go out and explore for some apples. You may just find something incredible! If you do, please follow the instructions in this post and contribute to this year’s Exhibition! You won’t be sorry. I’ll be posting again this Fall to write some more details about the Gnarly Pippins tree sale, marketing nursery stock of these experimental varieties available for purchase and pickup in Spring 2023.