Monday, July 10, 2017

Book Review with Insects: Apples

Title: Apples

Author: Peter Wynne

Date: 1975

Publisher: Hawthorn Books

ISBN: 0-8015-0340-X

Length: 275 pages plus 5-page index

Illustrations: many black-and-white reprints

Quote: “Much of this book is based onthe works of contributionhas been to gather the data into one place.”

Despite a rather embarrassing diversion into a purely theoretical Apple Cult, imagined along the lines of The White Goddess but without the literary genius, this is a delightful compendium of apple lore. Wynne explores the most popular North American apple breeds (of 1975, when Staymans and Jonathans were more popular than Fuji and Granny Smiths), discusses methods of cultivation, describes traditional apple festivals, and gives about 100 pages of apple recipes, not all of them desserts.

About the tips on orchard keeping I can say that they agree with what my parents learned when they stopped trying to plant vegetables on a steep patch of land and instead planted apple trees...except for the recommended “spray schedule,” which I can recommend you dismiss as totally outdated, useless, and harmful.

About the apple breeds, I learned about some new ones (to me) by reading this book, but noted the absence of any discussion of Arkansas Black Twigs and Rambos, the stars of an orchard in which some novelty breeds of the 1970s failed to thrive. We had some basic Stayman Winesap, Jonathan, and crossbreed “Jona-Licious” and “Jona-Gold” trees too, and a Lodi tree that still bears fruit...Rambos prolifically produce June apples, which actually ripen in July and are always very crisp and juicy and tangy. Children always want to eat apples in summer and Rambos are the ones my siblings and I ate by handfuls, without making ourselves sick once. Arkansas Black Twigs are unpopular because the trees don’t bear fruit until they’re ten or fifteen years old; when they do bear fruit it’s what many consider the perfect apple, red, sweet, crisp and juicy. (Crescent Dragonwagon, a naturalized Arkansan and perhaps biased, commemorated Black Twigs as the fruit an old patient “wept for.” It’s possible. To me other apples do seem a bit as if they were trying to taste like Black Twigs and never quite succeeding.) All apple trees bear more and better fruit after a cold winter (by Virginia standards) than after a mild one—the trees respond to just the right number of freezing-cold nights—but the fact that Black Twigs were developed and appreciated in Arkansas tells us that they can thrive and bear after milder winters than most apple trees need, too.

Also not mentioned in this book, deservingly, were the trio of novelty breeds, Prima, Sir Prize, and Priscilla, that Stark Bros brought out in the 1970s. They bloomed out of step with most apples, so the company suggested planting two or three of them together. My parents bought one of each breed and, perhaps to entice us to care for the trees, dedicated them to firstborn, son, and younger daughter respectively...All three of the novelty apple trees had been dead long enough, when I chose a screen name, that I didn’t even remember that my apple tree had been called “Prima” and my sister’s had been “Priscilla.”

Wynne does mention the “Wealthy” apple, but does not mention the “Poor Folks” apple...we had one of each, another choice that appealed to us because of the names of the trees. Wealthy trees, Wynne notes, “are best grown in the north-central states,” which may explain why ours never produced much fruit and didn’t live long. The Poor Folks tree did a little better for considerably longer, but I don’t remember anything about it that would have inspired me to plant another one.

If and when I replace the departed trees in the orchard, I’ll look for Rambos and Black Twigs first, Lodi if I can’t find those two breeds. Stayman Winesaps do, as Wynne observes, thrive in the Southern Appalachian mountains. They are our basic apple, the way the bland and mealy Delicious breed are the factory farms’ basic apple. Stayman Winesaps have more flavor and texture than Delicious; there’s nothing wrong with them, except that everybody in my part of the world can have a Stayman Winesap tree, so there’s nothing special about them and no incentive for people to buy the fruit. If you have room for only one apple tree, and you live high enough in the Blue Ridge Mountains that your water boils at 218 degrees Fahrenheit, a Stayman Winesap is probably the tree for you.

About spraying...the most charitable thing I can say is that Wynne was writing about huge commercial orchards in parts of the Northern States where a Vicious Spray Cycle was underway. You do not actually need to spray poisons on any apple tree, ever, to maintain a nice little orchard. You paint fungicides and bactericides onto the wood as needed, so that they don’t harm anything that doesn’t eat wood, and here’s what Wynne ought to tell you about insects but doesn’t:

* Aphids are the natural food of ladybugs. Import brighter-colored ladybugs if you do see an aphid infestation, more likely on a rosebud than on an apple tree since aphids don’t fly and usually dig into things close to ground level...but these days, in Virginia, the variable Asian ladybug is a bit of a nuisance, and aphids are found only where some idiot has sprayed poison.

* Apple maggots are a Northern Thing.I don’t know any intelligent way to control them, but there has to be one that won’t start a Vicious Spray Cycle.

* Bagworms (the ones that hide in individual bags, not the ones that make communal nests, discussed below) are a problem only when you have a lot of them. Since it’s easy to pick them off when you find them—the caterpillars can’t hurt humans and usually react to danger by hiding in their bags—and burn them, you won’t have a lot of them. Even the lazy smaller species that will overpopulate and kill evergreen trees (the bigger species that attack apple trees like to spread themselves out) should never be a problem.

* I’m familiar with the word “cankerworms” as it describes a different pest, but I’m not aware of any “inchworm” species that either becomes a pest or matures into a sexually dimorphic moth species. Maybe there is such an insect, somewhere. In Virginia there are lots of cute, harmless inchworms—most get about one inch long, many never grow that big, and the larva of the lovely Tulip Tree Beauty moth can grow up to two inches long. They nibble on lots of different things and do no harm, not even to tulip poplar trees.They don’t even give you that creepy-crawly sensation the majority of humans are programmed to loathe so deeply if they walk across your arm. Appreciate inchworms!

* Codling moths are quite a minor pest unless they’ve been nurtured into a major pest by a Vicious Spray Cycle. The way to avoid biting into an apple and finding a worm is to look for the spot the worm leaves when it burrows into the apple. Spotted apples are still a treat for cows, horses, and especially deer...and if you’re vigilant about supplying the grazing animals with their treats, you won’t have many spotted apples.

* The social caterpillar species, webworms, tent caterpillars, and walnut caterpillars, are all very easy to trap and burn by winding the webs into a long stick, but, despite appearances, they almost never even affect one year’s apple crop, much less damage a tree. Nature has provided that the trees can almost always spare the leaves these caterpillars consume. You only need to kill the caterpillars infesting a first-year sapling or previously damaged tree. They are native species and mostly harmless.

* Milky spore disease has brought Japanese beetles under control where they’re not being fostered by a Vicious Spray Cycle. If Japanese beetles are a nuisance on your roses or red clover, anyway, a good natural remedy is bantam chickens. Many bantams like Japanese beetles.

* Weevils, “plum curculios,” are yet another pest found in orchards where a Vicious Spray Cycle has started. Birds keep populations nice and thin if humans let them.

* Ladybugs also keep scale insects from becoming much of a nuisance.

* Mites are a nuisance, even in a healthy Green orchard...but it takes a tremendous lot of them to damage a tree, and in a healthy Green orchard they don’t build up that level of population density. They crawl everywhere, which is a gross-out, and may stunt the growth of individual apples before your other insects and birds can eat them. Small, odd-shaped apples are better than a Vicious Spray Cycle.

* Peach tree borers will bore into apple trees too. As if that weren’t bad enough, they then attract sapsuckers and other woodpeckers, which dig into the damaged wood and cause further damage. As with most insect species, the larvae are the ones that attack trees. The mature insects are odd-shaped moths that look like extra-large, white mosquitoes,fly at sunset, and are attracted to light. Kill them on sight—they’re easy to swat, like flies, and can be trapped around light bulbs. When you find their tunnels into trees, drop in a little poison, but don’t spray. Chickens enjoy eating these moths. We used to look for a few when it was time for the chickens to roost for the night, and hold them out as bait to lure chickens who wanted to roost dangerously in trees into a nice secure coop. The birds would rush to snatch the borers out of our fingers.

If you can resist the greedhead’s urge to maximize fruit yields during the first couple of years by starting a Vicious Spray Cycle, your apple tree(s) will harbor lots of insects, many of which arehelpful, and a few resident birds, whose company you’ll probably enjoy. If you’re blessed with resident cardinals, never spray anything—the cardinals will actually eat some of your smaller, softer fruits and sunflower seeds, of course, but their help in controlling insects and their company will be well worth it. (What kind of person would endanger anything that comes to the window in winter and says “Cheer, cheer, cheer!”? Not even a cat! In the thirty years since I whimsically explained to Black Magic, the Founding Queen of the Cat Sanctuary, that the cardinals are part of the family and not to be molested, the cats have never reduced the amount of cheer the cardinals have brought us.) You will see some damaged apples—much more from dry rot, and the ants and wasps that are always watching for windfalls, than from any species-specific pest. Resign yourself to a little damage and you will not see a lot of insect damage next year.

In the apple lore section, Wynne explains what was probably the original traditional method of “snapping apples”—snapping the seeds out of their coats—but not the method I learned in Maryland. This is odd because one of his sources is a study specifically of Maryland folklore. Perhaps the apple-snappers I met at the Seventh-Day Adventist college had imported their method from Ohio or Pennsylvania, where many of them had grown up? Anyway, before cutting or eating the apple, you twirl it on its stem end, one twirl for each letter of the alphabet in order, and when the stem snaps, that’s the initial of your favorite person. You can choose, partly by the feel of the stem, whether the target is the first, last, or middle initial, too...any experienced apple-snapper can get the stem to snap on the right letter. (If you do miss your sweetheart’s initial, you can always say you were thinking about a relative.)  Snapping apples thus has less to do with divination than with dropping a tactful hint, indirectly, into a group of friends, about which friend would be your first choice of date for a “couples” party, and was extremely popular at that church school. Some of us never ate an apple we hadn’t snapped.

Wynne also neglects, probably by design, the whole question of Michigan apples (I remember mostly McIntosh and similar breeds, though many kinds of apple trees, including Delicious, thrive in Michigan). While in Michigan I was told, quite seriously and by several informants, that peeling apples before biting into them was considered an insult to Michigan; the only proper way to eat these apples was whole, peels and all, nibbling down to the core. In Virginia even fresh apples usually have a spot of dry rot lurking somewhere under the peel, so if you don’t care for that mushy semi-fermented flavor you form a habit of peeling and slicing your apples...but the whole time I was in Michigan I ate at least one fresh local apple every day, and although the vitamins in all those apples did not protect me from the effects of a contaminated unnecessary vaccination, I have to mention that I never tasted dry rot. Not once. This is odd because, when Michigan apples (proudly labelled as such) are shipped to Virginia, by the time they arrive they develop as much dry rot as other apples do.

The recipes for cooking apples are provided mainly for historical interest, or for preserving surplus and/or inferior apples. When you have a nice mix of late summer, autumn, and winter apples you don’t cook them. You eat them. Because of the acid and enzyme content, fresh sweet juicy apples are the one dessert carb cravers can eat as much as they want without gaining weight. (Diabetics, unfortunately, do have to be more cautious.) One fresh apple of most varieties is an adequate “dessert serving,” but children exposed to Rambos, Black Twigs, or even Stayman Winesaps can usually eat three or four of these “servings” easily, and as I recall this overindulgence does them no harm—growing children need more calories than adults. Sometimes the Lodi, which frequently produces a lot of second-rate fruit in years when mild winters cause other trees not to produce apples at all, inspires us to make pies or applesauce, but in a good year Lodi apples are a fine dessert too. In a really good year even Delicious apples are indeed delicious, just as they grow—a bit sweet and mushy in comparison with the more memorable breeds, but still good.

Wynne experimented with some old recipes for apple-enhanced baked goods and noted that, if you mix apples into any baked dessert, you can get away with reducing the shortening and sweetening way below the amount you’d normally use to make cake, cookies, or steamed pudding with the same amount of flour. If you raise your own apples and don’t have a lot of damaged ones to use up fast, baking with apples can seem like a deplorable waste of fruit that naturally tastes better than any baked goods ever will...but it is a good way to make “diet” baked goods that don’t have a weird chemical flavor. Low-calorie apple-enriched baked goods really do have the sweet, rich flavor of their sugary, buttery counterparts. Pureed prunes and bananas have similar baking benefits. Damaged Stayman Winesap apples are, however, the secret to Grandma Bonnie Peters’ alcohol-free fruitcakes that actually taste like cake. (Too many fruitcakes taste like bricks pickled in alcohol.)

The copy of this book that I physically own actually smells like fermenting apples. Yummy! I don’t know whether the publisher did this to enhance every copy, or my copy acquired its fragrance by being stored in somebody’s cellar.

One way or another, if you like sweet treats, Apples is in every way a delicious book. If you have room to plant a tree, let it tempt you to plant an apple tree.

And it's not yet become overpriced, so the usual price system applies: $5 per book, $5 per package (you could add at least one more book to the package), + $1 per online payment, to the appropriate address at the very bottom of the screen.