Apples and Man: A Book Review

By Sam McClary

Apples & Man, by Fred Lape
Apples and Man, by Fred Lape

Apples and Man,” writ­ten by Arbore­tum founder Fred Lape and pub­lished in 1979, is an ode to the incred­i­ble genus Malus.. But it also pos­es a warn­ing about the grow­ing threat by the pro­lif­er­a­tion of new insec­ti­cides, fungi­cides, and herbicides. 

The genus Malus is an evo­lu­tion­ary suc­cess sto­ry, sprout­ing, grow­ing and thriv­ing in a wide vari­ety of habi­tats. The species that were native to North Amer­i­ca are almost unrec­og­niz­able from the fruit you see in the gro­cery store. They were small­er both in tree habit and fruit pro­duc­tion. The fruit was small, hard, sour and bit­ter! We know this group of apples as crabap­ples. They were a key com­po­nent of any small farm in the ear­ly US, being used to make alco­holic cider and a con­cen­trat­ed fruit spread. Apples became more eco­nom­i­cal­ly impor­tant as these set­tlers devel­oped new vari­etals, per­fect­ing them through graft­ing and selec­tion. These apples could be eat­en fresh, pressed into cider, fer­ment­ed into an alco­holic cider, or frozen into apple­jack. They quick­ly became an impor­tant com­mod­i­ty crop; com­mer­cial grow­ing of apples began on a large scale in the 20th Century.

The ubiq­ui­tous Deli­cious” apple is a case in point.“Delicious” was not quite what the name sug­gests: its fla­vor much less com­plex than ear­li­er vari­eties. But the tree was a huge improve­ment in yield and reli­a­bil­i­ty. And the fruit’s skin was tougher — mak­ing it excel­lent for keep­ing and ship­ping. Thus began a shift in taste away from old­er vari­eties, all for the ben­e­fit of large agribusi­ness. It is here, Lape inter­jects, where things get messy.”

The apple, now a full-blown com­mer­cial crop, began to require more and more upkeep in the form of fer­til­iz­ers, pes­ti­cides and oth­er chem­i­cals in stark con­trast to the hardy and robust apples that evolved along­side human­i­ty (think John­ny Apple­seed.). The fol­low­ing list of chem­i­cals is from the 1974 Spray Guide for Tree Fruits in East­ern Wash­ing­ton,” pub­lished by the Coop­er­a­tive Exten­sion Ser­vice of the Col­lege of Agri­cul­ture of Wash­ing­ton State Uni­ver­si­ty. All of these were to be applied at var­i­ous stages pri­or to a com­mer­cial apple being pur­chased by a con­sumer: Dield­rin, Parathion, Dodine, Elge­tol, Sevin, Guthion, Cap­tan, Thio­dan, Dipheny­lamine, Simazine, Paraquat, Ethrel, NAA , and Ethoxyquin. Had you looked at the list ten years pri­or, you would also see the rec­om­men­da­tion of three or four spray­ings of DDT

Fred Lape s book rais­es some seri­ous ques­tions about the future of the genus Malus. What will become of Eso­pus Spitzen­berg, Graven­stein, Blue Pear­main, and Black Oxford, among count­less oth­er old cul­ti­vars? Will we defer to the easy-to-mer­chan­dise stan­dard­iza­tion pre­ferred by com­mer­cial grow­ers? What about the health con­se­quences of chem­i­cal­ly sus­tained agri­cul­ture? Or will we redis­cov­er excit­ing heir­loom vari­etals and re-learn how to grow apples in accor­dance with nature instead of in oppo­si­tion to it? Apples and Man” posits that the answers are up to us. 

Fall 2023

Volume 41 , Number 3

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