86 DESIGN NEW ENGLAND SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2013
From Crabby to Sweet
Apples made their way to New England and found the climate and the hillsides ideal
written by bruce irving
What could be more American than apple pie? Well, maybe crab apple pie, since those native sour wild apples were the only kind growing in New England when the Pilgrims showed up in 1620. The sweet, domesticated Malus domes- tica, which we consume today, was but halfway
through its march around the world then, having started in the prehistoric forests of central Asia, thence along human trade routes westward until finally making it to the British Isles, thanks to the Romans.
Some 70 varieties grew there, the fruit venerated for its deliciousness,
nutritiousness, and versatility, both in cooking and as the source for
the much-consumed hard cider. The Pilgrims helped it make its leap
across the Atlantic, almost certainly packing seeds and grafted seedlings aboard Mayflower.
The grafted plants were clones of trees that did well in the old
country, but conditions were different enough on the coast of Mas-
sachusetts Bay that many didn’t survive. Happily, apple trees have
a peculiar way of reproducing: Every apple contains traits from both
parents, so the seeds are wildly different and, it seems, were able to
yield at least some plants that could thrive in a new environment.
Those trees didn’t produce fruit for 5 to 10 years, but once they did,
America was ready for its first apple pie.
North America’s first real apple orchard was on the slopes of not-yet-Boston’s Beacon Hill, where the eccentric Reverend William Blax-ton settled, alone, in 1625. When the Puritans bought some of his land
and moved in a few years later, he is said to have ridden his trained bull
through the streets of the fledgling community, handing out apples and
flowers to his new neighbors.
In 1796, Amelia Simmons penned the nation’s first cookbook,
American Cookery, in which she wrote:
Apples … are highly useful in families, and ought to be universally cultivated, excepting in the compactest cities. There is not a single family but
might set a tree in some otherwise useless spot, which might serve the twofold use of shade and fruit; on which 12 or 14 kinds of fruit trees might easily be engrafted, and essentially preserve the orchard from the intrusions of
boys, &c. which is too common in America.
are ripe for the
picking at an
orchard in Littleton,