Friday, July 11, 2014

There Was No Johnny Appleseed

Those who know me know I do quite a bit of gardening but despite the fact that my maternial grandfather and several uncles on my father's side of the family all ran successful apple orchards in the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia I can't get one single apple from the apple tree I planted in my front yard a few years ago. If it's not the false Springs of the North Carolina Piedmont killing all the blooms then the squrills get the 5 apples that remain.

 But that doesn't mean I didn't learn at least a little bit about growing apples in my youth. So while in the garden this morning I got to thinking about Johnny Appleseed and realized the entire story that was taught to us in our elementary school history classes is complete myth-- a fabrication, a lie.

Take the most delicious apple you have ever tasted and plant the seeds. Odds are quite good you'll grow an apple tree but you'll not grow the same kind of apple tree you planted.

Google apple seeds and you'll find links to t-shirt stores, children's classes and women's clothing but no links to where you can buy apple seeds. Why? Because no one sells apple seeds. Apple seeds never grow the same kind of tree that the seed came from. Why would you buy apple seeds if you don't know what you're getting? On apple orchards, any apple tree that sprouts from any apple that fell to the ground is considered a weed and gets cut down. You see, apple seeds have no value and only fools would buy them. From Wikipedia:

"In the wild, apples grow readily from seeds. However, like most perennial fruits, apples are ordinarily propagated asexually by grafting. This is because seedling apples are an example of "extreme heterozygotes", in that rather than inheriting DNA from their parents to create a new apple with those characteristics, they are instead significantly different from their parents.[43] Triploid varieties have an additional reproductive barrier in that 3 sets of chromosomes cannot be divided evenly during meiosis, yielding unequal segregation of the chromosomes (aneuploids). Even in the case when a triploid plant can produce a seed (apples are an example), it occurs infrequently, and seedlings rarely survive.[44]

Because apples do not breed true when planted as seeds, grafting is generally used to produce new apple trees. The rootstock used for the bottom of the graft can be selected to produce trees of a large variety of sizes, as well as changing the winter hardiness, insect and disease resistance, and soil preference of the resulting tree. Dwarf rootstocks can be used to produce very small trees (less than 3.0 m (10 ft) high at maturity), which bear fruit earlier in their life cycle than full size trees.[45] Dwarf rootstocks for apple trees can be traced as far back as 300 BC, to the area of Persia and Asia Minor. Alexander the Great sent samples of dwarf apple trees to Aristotle's Lyceum. Dwarf rootstocks became common by the 15th century, and later went through several cycles of popularity and decline throughout the world.[46] The majority of the rootstocks used today to control size in apples were developed in England in the early 1900s. The East Malling Research Station conducted extensive research into rootstocks, and today their rootstocks are given an "M" prefix to designate their origin. Rootstocks marked with an "MM" prefix are Malling-series varieties later crossed with trees of the Northern Spy variety in Merton, England.[47]"

Just to be clear, breeders do grow a few trees from seeds but they never know what they'll get until the apples are harvested several years later.

The fact is: Johnny Appleseed was real, his name was John Chapman but he didn't distribute apple seeds. Instead he founded apple nurseries where seeds were planted then left them in the care of nearby farmers who sold the young trees these nurseries produced to other farmers and paid John Chapman a share upon his return every year or two. Many of John Chapman's apple trees grew some very nasty tasting apples but those nasty tasting apples still made hard apple cider and strong applejack-- products that were very much in demand in Colonial America. With enough sugar they'd probably make good jelly too but canning was new in John Chapman's day so I doubt a lot of his apples went to make jelly.

His business plan required that he move west just ahead of other settlers and establish claim to a plot of land and start a nursery before other settlers moved into the area. This would have kept him in each place for a few years. Then, once his claim and the nursery were established he could make arrangements with a neighbor to work the nursery in his absence so that he could move farther west to expand his enterprise.

John Chapman was made famous because he built his business upon a business model that built businesses for others. Perhaps if we concentrated more on John Chapman the man and less on Johnny Appleseed the mythical figure his legacy has become, we'd have a better understanding of what is wrong with our world today and how we might use government and business to fix it.

There was no Johnny Appleseed but there was a John Chapman who founded numerous apple nurseries from Pennsylvania westward to Illinois Correction: Indiana and helped many others establish businesses and a legacy that still exists 169 years after his death. He never wandered around aimlessly giving away apple seeds-- where's the profit in that?

Perhaps Greensboro, Guilford County and North Carolina should be thinking about the same instead of teaching myths in our schools. There's always a new frontier out there, instead of thinking about how to keep it all to yourselves why not think about how you can share it with all of us? That's how real economies are built.