Natural Perspectives: Say goodbye to American pie

If you were painting a Norman Rockwell portrait of America, you'd probably picture mom and an apple pie wrapped in the Star-Spangled Banner. But America's apples are disappearing.

A century ago, there were an estimated 20 million apple trees growing in the U.S. Today, there are only a quarter of that number, and the number of varieties are greatly diminished.

In the 1800s, about 15,000 different named apple varieties were cultivated on America's farms, orchards and gardens. Today, there are only about 3,500 varieties that are commercially available. Only a handful of those varieties are offered in our local stores.

Ninety percent of today's commercially available apples are in danger of falling off the produce shelves. The Red Delicious variety makes up 41% of all apples grown commercially. That's too bad, because while the Red Delicious is indeed red and attractive, it isn't the world's best tasting apple. And it makes lousy pies.

As environmentalists, Vic and I promote conservation of species diversity. And that includes diversity in America's crop varieties as well. In these uncertain times of changing climate and wilder, more frequent storms, we need crop diversity more than ever. And it is at just this precise point in history that we are losing diversity in America's heirloom crop varieties.

Apples are unusual in that you can't plant the seed of a particular variety of apple and get a tree that bears that kind of apple. Because of the apple's crazy genetics, today's apple orchards are all grafted with known branch stock (called scions) onto whatever apple rootstock is desired.

But things weren't always that way. In the early 1800s when the Midwest was being settled, the government required that settlers plant 25 fruit trees to "prove" their property. Apples were the fruit of choice, because the free-ranging pigs that belonged to the pioneers didn't particularly care what kind of apple they ate. They consumed whatever fell from the trees.

And so it came to pass that a man of legend and American folklore went through the countryside, selling apple tree seedlings to newly arrived settlers. A family would get off a flatboat on the Ohio River, buy 25 seedling trees from Johnny Appleseed, drive their horses and wagons to their new land, clear it of hardwoods, and plant their orchards. The best eating apples were saved, and the rest were eventually cut down. And that's how America ended up with 15,000 different kinds of apple trees.

Each one of those little seedlings was a random genetic experiment. Only about one in 10,000 produced a tree worth saving, but with so many pioneers planting so many apple trees, some were bound to be winners. Some were perfect for pies. Others made great applesauce. A few were good for eating out of hand, and others made wonderful cider.

When I was growing up in Indiana, we had Baldwins, Gravensteins, Jonathons, McIntosh, Rome Beauties, Pippins and Winesaps in addition to the ubiquitous Red and Golden Delicious apples. When Vic and I lived in Connecticut, we were fortunate to live near Layman's Orchards where they grew a large number of heirloom varieties. I'll never forget the flavor of a pie made with Northern Spy apples.

I've searched ever since for something that compares to a Northern Spy, and nothing does, although Granny Smith comes close. That's why the first apple tree we planted in our yard was a Granny Smith. Oh, sure, we could get some Northern Spies shipped from Connecticut, but we try to eat locally grown foods whenever possible to reduce carbon emissions. We like to keep our carbon footprint as low as possible, doing what we can to mitigate global warming.

Many apple growers are concerned about global warming because most apple varieties require 1,000 "chill hours" to set abundant fruit. By the end of this century, most California orchards are expected to receive less than 500 chill hours. Now more than ever, we need diversity in our food crop varieties so that there is security and resiliency in our food sources. We'd better not put all of our apples in one basket. Maintaining high diversity in America's food crops is one way of providing food security. As consumers, we can help maintain that diversity by seeking out and buying heirloom varieties.

Today we're losing our heirloom apples due to pressure from modern shipping and storage, as well as consumers' desire for bright red, perfect looking apples. In preparation for this column, I searched around town to see if I could find any apples other than Gala, Fuji, Braeburn and the other usual suspects. I really enjoy Braeburn apples, the result of a chance seedling sprouted in New Zealand. But I would like to try an Arkansas Black or a Sierra Beauty, two heirlooms that are hard to find. And some day, I'd like to make another pie from Northern Spy apples. Alas, I found none of those.

However, I was delighted to find four heirloom apple varieties at the new Whole Foods Market in Bella Terra. These apples came from Gopher Glen Farms in San Luis Obispo. I did some research at, and learned that they have both Arkansas Black and Northern Spy apples. Be still my heart.

I can hardly wait to get some California-grown Northern Spy apples. For now, I'll content myself with the New County, Mohawk, Red Yorking and Splendor apple varieties that I bought at Whole Foods Market. Splendor is supposed to be terrific for eating fresh, but no good for pies. Mohawks are also good eating apples.

Support America's incredible apple diversity by seeking out and buying heirloom apples. You also can find heirloom apples such as White Winter Pearmain, King David, Gravensteins and Pippins in Oak Glen in Riverside County. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to bake an apple pie with the last Granny Smiths from our backyard orchard.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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