How ‘Bout Them Apples?

Apple grower and author Diane Flynt to tell story of the apple in the South at VMHC.

Raspberries and figs, sure. But apple cultivation?

Most people don’t immediately think of the South when it comes to apples, yet Indigenous people used the native crabapple, Malus angustifolio, for centuries before colonizers arrived.

The earliest apple we all know today, Malus domestica, likely arrived before the Jamestown settlement, perhaps from the Spanish and Portuguese in Florida. Another possibility is that apples traveled down the spine of the Appalachians on Indigenous trading routes from Maine, where they arrived in the 1500s with European cod fishermen.

The first colonizer-planted orchards in the south were planted in Jamestown around 1615, ten years before the Boston orchard that is usually credited as the first American orchard. Much like with the first Thanksgiving, Massachusetts’ PR machine always seemed to have the jump on Virginia in claiming firsts.

Apple grower and cider maker Diane Flynt is on a quest to set the Southern apple record straight. Her new book, “Wild, Tamed, Lost, Revived: The Surprising Story of Apples in the South” will be the subject of her talk on June 27 at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

Diane Flynt, author of “Wild, Tamed, Lost, Revived: The Surprising Story of Apples in the South.” Photo provided by the author.

Indigenous groups grew apples all over the South, especially the Cherokee people in Georgia and North Carolina. “Many apples are credited as Cherokee apples, but the original names from Cherokee-selected apples have been lost,” Flynt says. “Apples like Cullasaga, Kittageskee, and Junaluskee are thought to be apples selected and grafted by the Cherokee people.”

Flynt offers a new history of apples, one that begins in the American South, transforms the region, and successfully spreads Southern apples across the globe. “Albemarle Pippin was imported to England and Kittageskee was commercially grown in France until WWII,” she says. “Southern apples also traveled to the Pacific Northwest with a North Carolina Quaker nurseryman who founded the apple industry in Oregon.”

Settler apples are defined as fruit that traveled west with families moving across America. Many of these varieties were family apples, specific fruit treasured by a single family or grown in a specific locality. Flynt points to Henderson Luelling, a Quaker nurseryman born in Randolph County, North Carolina, who traveled the Oregon Trail with hundreds of apples, several from his family’s original orchard in NC.

Flynt’s book looks at how Southerners of all types, including Indigenous, enslaved men and women, small farmers, and aristocrats, who farmed, and before the mid-1800s that was almost everybody, noticed wild apple trees and grafted the trees that appealed to them.

 

Coming as a surprise to absolutely no one, apples were entwined with slavery. On large plantations with significant orchards, enslaved men and women did the work of planting, tending, and harvesting apples, as well as fermenting and bottling cider. “There are a few apples that hold the names of enslaved men and women, like the Tony apple or Aunt Cora’s Yard apple,” Flynt explains. “Often it’s hard to discern the true story behind these much-mythologized apples, but it’s clear that grafting was a common skill, one practiced by enslaved people.”

As common as apple growing became in the South, modernity eventually led to the disappearance of hundreds of uniquely Southern apples. “When people moved to cities for wage jobs, they left small economy farms, farms that supported a variety of crops including apples,” says Flynt. “Farming became more of a business, one that necessitated bigger farms, and crops like cotton and tobacco that were more profitable than apples.”

The current revival of Southern varieties in preservation orchards, modern cideries and multi-generation Southern orchards was launched in 1997 when author and nurseryman Lee Calhoun donated his collection of over 350 Southern apples to the state of North Carolina. His collection became the Southern Heritage Apple Orchard at Horne Creek Living Historic Farm in Pinnacle, NC. Flynt adds, “But many specialty tree nurseries, such as Century Farm orchard in North Carolina and Southern Cultured nursery in Mississippi also collected and sold old Southern varieties.”

Flynt considers herself a creator rather than a maintainer. “Learning is my highest value, and I dove into this project of researching and writing a book about my region so that I could learn all I could about the south, agriculture in the south, and the legacy of fruit growing.”

In researching the book, Flynt was surprised to learn of the impact that the establishment of national parks had on orchards in the South. “When places like the Great Smokey Mountains National Park and the Shenandoah National Park were established, they were created in areas that were peopled and full of prosperous farms with many orchards,” she says. “These were all displaced by the interests pushing for park establishment.”

After a corporate career in financial services, Flynt founded Foggy Ridge Cider in 1997 and currently sells cider apples to cidermakers across the South from her Foggy Ridge orchards in the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains. Asked about her favorite Southern apple variety, she quotes Virginia nurseryman Tom Burford, who used to answer the question by saying, “The last one I ate.”

But her passion for apples means she does have some personal munching favorites.

“For eating, I’m partial to Parmar in early fall, a good ripe Grimes Golden in late September, Ralls Janet in October, and Black Twig in November,” she says. “I love an Albemarle Pippin, properly aged off the tree, in late November and the many Limbertwigs and Arkansas Black all winter long.”

Diane Flynt’s talk on “Wild, Tamed, Lost, Revived: The Surprising Story of Apples in the South” on June 27 at noon, at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. 428 N. Arthur Ashe Blvd. Virginiahistory.org

TRENDING

WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW — straight to your inbox

* indicates required
Our mailing lists: