Plant Guide > Trees > Apples > Wild Apple Tree

Wild Apple Tree

Wild Apple TreeThe Wild Apple (Malus Malus, Britt.), native to southern Europe and Asia, is the parent of our cultivated apples. It is the apple of classical literature, inseparably associated with the growth of civilisation, and cultivated for the improvement of its fruit for unnumbered centuries.

Our orchard trees, which renew their youth every spring in fuzzy leaves and fragrant pink and white blossoms, are direct descendants of this ancient species. Myth and folk-lore and written history all tell how this fruit, more than any other-the simple, wholesome, uncloying fruit of the north temperate zone-is interwoven with the life of the people.

Read in the Song of Solomon: "As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons." And as a symbol of exquisite joy attained through the senses, "the smell of apples" is named with the odours of spikenard and camphire and bundles of myrrh. Read the classics, ancient and modern. Fancy the story of the fall of Troy or the legend of William Tell with the apple left out!

If we would know what this wild European apple is like we may get a good idea by planting an apple seed, and watching the tree that springs from it. Or we may save time by examining a wilding tree in the fence corner, planted perhaps by the hand that threw away an apple core years ago. Suppose it was the seed of a fine desert variety of apple. Its offspring will not bear the same variety and quality of fruit. It is almost sure to "revert to the wild type." That is, the fruit of it will be small, sour and gnarly, just such apples as the orchard tree would have borne if it had not been grafted or budded while it stood in the nursery row.

But there are exceptions to every rule. There are varieties of apples-a very few-that "come true from seed." Such is La Belle Fameuse, the ruddy-checked, white-fleshed "Snow" of the Northeastern States-the domestic apple of the Canadian French. Up and down the valley of the St. Lawrence this apple tree grew in the gardens of the early settlers. The seeds were carried and distributed by neighbours, by migrant traders, but chiefly by the Jesuit missionaries whose hope was that the homesick habitant should grow to love the land of his adoption. And they were not disappointed. Generations passed, and the tree became an intimate part of the home life of New France. Drummond, poet of the habitant, describes the old-fashioned garden, modelled on the typical one of precious memory in sunny France:

" Dat house on de hill, you can see it still,
She's sam' place he bull' de firs' tam' he come;
Behin' it dere's one leetle small jardin,
Got plaintee de bes' tabac Canayen,
Wit Fameuse apple, an' beeg blue plum."

It was a hard life, and the touch of poetry and luxury brought into it by these fruit trees was not lost on the appreciative habitant. He had his domestic animals, and the home flowers about his door-" the leetle small jardin"-and he was comforted in the land of the long, cold winters. His apple trees were as much a part of his establishment as the dog and cow and team of horses. He cherished them next to his family and his religion. In fact, they were a part of both, if he could have analysed his feeling for them.

While the French in Canada were still planting seeds of their beloved Fameuse apple as their fathers had done before them, noting no change in the character of the fruit except when a tree bore handsomer and finer-flavoured apples than any tasted before, a strange and interesting story was unfolding itself in the valley of the Ohio River. A picturesque character calling himself Johnnie Apple Seed wandered up and down, with no apparent object in life but to plant apple seeds.

Queer as he was, the motive that actuated him was nobly altruistic. He was doing what he could to turn the desert into a garden. He had the strange notion that grafting and pruning trees was a wicked practice. He lived to see his trees in bearing over a vast territory. But it is to be hoped that he never realised to what a degree his philanthropy failed. They were mostly "Apples of Sodom" that came as a harvest. Where he had planted seeds of Baldwins and Greenings and Bellflowers grew trees bearing apples with strange, crabbed looks, mongrels of varying degrees of insipidity. They were largely seedling trees of varieties that did not come true. They stubbornly exemplified the rule of which the Farneuse is an exception.

Do you know the romance of the Newtown pippin? If you have seen one of these matchless apples and sunk your teeth into its mellow substance I need not tell you of its sprightly flavour, its absolute fulfilment of your ideal of what an apple ought to be. What is its pedigree?

Two centuries ago a chance seed fell near a swamp on the outskirts of the village of Newtown, Rhode Island. A seedling tree came up, and was ignored, as such trees are, until some vagrant passing by saw and tasted the first apples it bore. And the very golden apples of Hesperides they were for the village and the countryside! Cions of this tree became the parents of great orchards in the Hudson River Valley. Up and down the coast among the colonies they were scattered.

In the year 1758, Benjamin Franklin, our representative in England, received a box of Newtown pippins, and he gave some to his distinguished friend, Peter Collinson. Thus were American apples introduced with Mat to the attention of the English. The trees did poorly in English orchards, but the fruit in London markets grew in popularity. In 1845 the orchard of Robert Pell, in Ulster County, New York, which contained 20,000 pippin trees, yielded a crop which brought in the London market $21 per barrel. The tables of the nobility were supplied with these apples at the astonishing price of a guinea a dozen- forty-two cents apiece!

And yet, almost within the memory of men now living, the old tree still stood on the edge of the swamp, and men came from far and near-even from over seas-to cut cions from the original Newton pippin tree.

Here and there in the history of horticulture are other instances where Nature seems to rise superior to her own laws by creating valuable seedling varieties. The "Wealthy" apple was a chance discovery in a Minnesota nursery row. It is the parent of one of the noblest varieties of the Northwest States -a worthy mate for the Newtown pippin. Other sorts of apples have sprung from crosses between known varieties. These are hybridsseedlings, one of whose parents contributed the pollen that fertilised the flower on another tree. From the seed thus set the new tree comes, different from each parent tree, but having some traits of each.

In these two ways-by seedlings and by hybrids-new varieties have arisen, and others will come on. But each is uncertain -a problem for the scientist, not the apple grower. To plant seeds for an orchard would be the utmost folly. The quick and sure way to get and keep a good variety is to graft other trees with cions of the desired kind. Fertilising the soil, and thorough tillage, greatly improve the health of a tree, and the quality and size of its fruit. But they do not change a Baldwin into a Greening. It may be possible, however, to produce a superior individual tree, whose characters, perpetuated, give rise to an improved "strain" of the variety. Soil, climate and treatment all emphasise individual differences in trees and in their fruits. There is no law in Nature so inexorable as the law of Constant Variation.

Our little hard-fleshed, slender-stemmed garden crab apples are an interesting race. The Siberian crab (Malus baccata), of northern Asia, is the parent species. The larger sorts are probably from crosses of this with Malus Malus in some of its varieties.

Japan has given us some wonderful flowering apples, small trees and shrubs. Malus floribunda is probably as glorious a sight in bloom as any tree that ever grew. After these splendid blossoms we can but marvel again at the crop of fruit that succeeds them. Some of these apples are handsome and good to eat, but of the various species I have seen no fruit grows larger than a cherry!