Suzanne Long is an apple enthusiast, supporter of Wychwood Barns Farmers’ Market and skilled urban fruit forager. Last week she and I got talking about the importance of apples as we prepared for the launch of the first annual Apple Tasting at the market. While looking at century-old illustrations of apple growing, picking, packing and exhibiting we exchanged ideas on the apple’s importance in Ontario history. Then our conversation turned to how nature and human behavior came together in interesting and unpredictable ways with the ripening of fruit in the city’s public spaces.
The Apple As Part of Settlement
SL: If you were a settler you wanted an apple tree. Apples and maple sugar, those were the sweet things. Apples, fruit in general, were the sweetest things that would be on the tables starting in the summer.
The other thing is that with the danger of getting malaria from water, people drank beer, an apple flavored shrub and cider to quench their thirst. Cider was offered in exchange for labour at barn raisings. Cider apples are more tannic than eating apples. In general, a great number of apple varieties were grown because each type was particularly suited to being used for baking, cider, drying, etc.
Then there are the eating apples. If you found a great eating apple you grafted it because apple doesn’t grow true to seed. That’s why every McIntosh you eat now still is genetically the same as the one discovered by John McIntosh in the early 1800’s. He and his sons popularized the Mac through their grafting and promotion of this apple variety.
Apple was a huge crop for Ontario, a big deal throughout the 19th century. Then in the early 1900’s you get refrigeration and you could take apples from Ontario and sell them somewhere far away.
The Apple in the Modern Era
SL: After prohibition people tore out a lot of the cider orchards. They were gone. That’s likely when eating apples became more prevalent, promoted by the health slogan “an apple a day”. The switch involved convincing people that you had to eat an apple a day, not drink an apple a day.
The trend at that time was towards apple varieties that were resistant to bad winters and disease. Commercial sprays were coming out that would allow such apples that had susceptibility to particular diseases to be a more reliable percentage of apple production. It was at this point that the Mac really took off.
Along with this, the unusual, locally known apples began to disappear. People weren’t living on the farm any more where they may have had one or two unusual apple trees. They were starting to grow them uniformly for looks, colour and durability.
For example the Macoun, a northwest apple, is grown an hour away from Toronto but doesn’t make it easily to market. It has to be eaten immediately because the flavour doesn’t last when stored and the skin is too soft for it to be transported.
I believe the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, has about twenty standard apples that are what we grow in Ontario. (Top apple varieties by production percentages: McIntosh 27%, Empire 19% Red Delicious 12% Northern Spy 10%)
These varieties require a lot of spraying and are selected largely for supermarket looks—they’re like big, uniform, brightly coloured jewels. If you have a bag of them you’ll see that there’s no apple smell. And individually they rarely taste like true apples. At the Royal Winter Fair I watched apples being judged a couple of years ago. The fair takes place in early November so the apples can’t be at their peak taste, they are primarily judged on their looks.
Curating the Evolution of Apple Taste
SL: The tasting will have five old school heritage varieties. The Snow (another older apple, believed to be parent of the Mac, probably the first real Canadian apple), the McIntosh, then various direct children of Mac : Cortland, Macoun, Empire and Spartan. Next to those will be various modern apples bred for disease resistance and related to the Mac but less closely than the directly bred children. The further away from the Mac on the tasting table, the more distant the relationship and more recent the variety. The modern Mac apples developed in the 60s to 90s show how disease resistant breeds can appeal to modern taste sensibilities. The experimental apples at the end on the round table are presented alongside the Honeycrisp to show the very sweet sensibilities that are being catered to right now.
Exhibiting the Apple a Century Ago
TC: I’m interested in the elaborate displays at provincial fruit shows and fairs a century ago. The 1893 Columbian Exposition catalogue of Ontario apples lists a staggering number of apple varieties. 1893 Columbia Exposition Ontario Pommological Department
But the number of exhibited varieties being shown has radically decreased by 1905 as reflected in the 1905 Ontario Horticultural Exhibition.
I guess, beyond catching the eye of consumers, these displays were designed to show how uniformly a certain variety of apple variety could grow and therefore how well it could be packed, stored and shipped.
But I think the display style might have its roots in Protestant altar decorations for the harvest feast. The tradition of the heaped display then extended to the provincial fair and other horticultural shows. In the most spectacular exhibition class at Toronto’s annual Fruit and Flower show, counties would compete against each other.
The Birth of the McIntosh Apple
All of the McIntosh trees now growing in all parts of the country have descended from that one little tree in Dundas County, not by planting seed from it, for that most likely would have produced other varieties, but by grafting and budding other trees with cuttings and buds taken from it.
“The Story of an Apple” Bulletin of the Ontario Agricultural College and Dept of Agriculture, Toronto, 1902
TC: The story of the ultimate Ontario apple variety, the McIntosh, was written to be read to children in a 1902 Department of Agriculture Bulletin (see above). In the first decade of the twentieth century and the years preceding the war Nature Study was very popular and the story of the Mac was also published as short piece in The Busy Man’s Magazine.
SL: The Mac’s popularity was due to the fact that people were becoming adept at grafting throughout the 19th century and selling the grafted trees. Settlers like Johnny Appleseed helped to create very local types of apple. Many areas had an apple special to it; often the apple derived its name from the place or breeder or his wife. Farmers would keep the most popular and best adapted varieties and those would be the ones that they would graft and sell.
TC: And, ultimately the variety may or may not have won prizes and become a top apple. But the compelling elements of the story are the chance birth of a new apple at the back of the farm, its finding favor in the family and locality and then its reproduction by the farmer.
Rose Villa, Toronto Gore, Historical Atlas of Peel County 1877
TC: The strip of trees in the back of the farm or the fence rows were the areas of biological anarchy where things could grow by chance. So it was a complement to the field, the place of cultivation.
SL: At the tasting I’ll note which apples were created by chance not by breeding. There’s one, it’s a real apple but it’s some weird variant that comes from a crab apple and it’s really good. They’re called Wealthy and they’re pretty old.
“I knew when each apple would appear, what it looked like and how it tasted.”
TC: Tell me your family connection to apples.
SL: I have none.
TC: But you once told me that you had farming roots in Peel County.
SL: Yes I do. My family sold the farm in the thirties it’s one of the eleven farms that is now Pearson Airport.
TC: But obviously the knowledge about apples was kept alive in the family.
SL: No, my Dad never knew the location of the original farm it was a lost element of the family history. I discovered it through research.
But we did have a weekend farm when I was a kid and we would play in the apple trees along the fence rows. I knew when each apple would appear what it looked like and how it tasted. Apples still grow wild in the country along the road on fence lines close to farms such as Spirit Tree in Caledon. You can still see them, look for the apples on the ground and the road.
Connecting Apple Growers to Urban Consumers
SL: This is a great picture.
TC: Yes, it’s 1911 and it’s a steam ship. Steamers transported the apples from the Niagara fruit belt and farther west, the area around Sarnia, to the towns along the shore of Lake Ontario. By that time the local rural markets were disappearing as people left the farms. Orchards weren’t being tended and so the big concern was how to revitalize what had been the largest, most lucrative crop in the province by connecting farmers to the new markets. The Department of Agriculture promoted standardization not only in how to grow and what to grow but pushed for the organization of local co-ops to organize warehousing, and shipping. (The Canadian Horticulturalist, July 1910)
At the same time, insufficient production in York County farms had resulted in escalating price for fresh produce in Toronto. Along with the push to establish standards for apple-growing as an export business, the Department of Agriculture attempts (below) to convince potential new farmers of the prospects of economic security in “truck market gardening” thanks to highways and a scientifically worked out program of fertilizing and spraying. The traditional 100 acre farm is depicted as a dinosaur that will soon be supplanted by leaner, smarter operations dedicated to moving fresh produce quickly into the city.
Spadina House Heritage Orchard
Suzanne Long, “Spadina Saturdays” Flickr album
TC: In terms of heritage orchards, you’re very connected to the Spadina House program. What is the period represented there?
SL: They’re meant to be reflective of Victorian and Edwardian Toronto. They have some really great old apples for the variety of uses.
In the fifties people stopped baking and canning. That whole thing fell out of favour because you could get those goods at the supermarket. Apples weren’t being used for sauce, for baking, for cider. As their uses dwindled they became more ornamental, they all became the standard lunchbox apple.
TC: What varieties do they have at Spadina House?
SL: Few of any of the original orchard trees remain. However, they were grafted and all the varieties represent what had grown there: Baldwin, Greening, Maiden Blush, Spy, Mac, Snow and Red Astrachan, a great early apple and good for sauce.
TC: Are they on the trees now?
SL: Spadina still has some late apples like Russets, they need the cold to ripen. Most others would have been picked by Not Far From the Tree (NFFT) for the City Cider event a couple of weeks ago. In 2009 when LEAF began to offer its Edible Tree Tours I organized a tasting of the Spadina orchard apples as part of one. As well, when the Wychwood Barns Farmers Market was in its early days, I regularly brought Spadina House apples to the market to promote the heritage orchard.
The Urban Park-Community Orchard
TC: You’ve invited Susan Poizner on Saturday to promote her new book Urban Fruit Tree. She’s the person behind the Ben Nobleman Park Community Orchard, an orchard planted in a park by the people who live around the park.
SL: Yes, I’ve been following the project because it was related to Not Far From the Tree and Susan, like me, once worked as a city gardener. And, I live on Cedarvale ravine.
Originally there was so much resistance to it in the neighborhood that they ended up with far fewer trees than they had planned. Then they lost some to disease.
TC: I remember that last summer they were in the news when people in the neighbourhood picked their cherries. They were very upset, calling the incident an act of vandalism.
SL: If you grow apple trees in a public place in the city and someone needs the fruit it will be picked, so be it. That’s the way I see it.
I think it’s a shame that the community orchard has never connected with the fruit that is growing in the Cedarvale Ravine. I would like to see the city legalize and then promote foraging by planting suitable fruit trees and berry bushes in their parks and ravines.
TC: I guess there’s a contradiction in the reality of a ‘community’ orchard that permits only a select number of individuals within the community to pick the fruit. And then, to add to the irony, as you mention, beyond the neighborhood park there’s the wild-growing fruit in the ravine park that might be enjoyed yet no one knows about it and foraging is technically illegal in the city.
SL: If you plant in public space it should be accessible to people who live here. I’ve been picking the Green P cherry tree and posting about it online for 4-5 years.
Suzanne Long, “Midnight Cherries” Toronto Living, August 25, 2014
TC: The artists’ gardens at Artscape Wychwood Barns are in an ambiguous park and private zone. A couple of the artists have gone to great lengths to put up signs and barriers so that people understand that what they are growing belongs exclusively to them because they too had food vandalized from their gardens.
SL: They have to understand that the “vandalism” is how people interact with what’s growing in a public-private boundary zone.
TC: The tiny plots that surround the building are under the governance of Artscape as the property manager. I think it wants to strike a balance between accommodating the artist tenants’ desire to cultivate a bit of land adjoining their rental unit and the maintaining the feel of the space as part of public park.
SL: They should not have that fence there. It’s unfriendly and not porous.
TC: I guess there has to be an agreement about how to create the complementary types of spaces—one where the individual creative effort is protected and the other where open access is preserved. That’s going to have to be worked out more clearly as the growing of food in parks increases every year.
SL: But the people who are planting in a public space must understand that they cannot control the outcome. It’s like the gardener on the landscape crew who put that Green P Parking Lot cherry tree. It pleased him to grow that. Someone on a landscape crew takes care of that tree and that’s unusual. If he Googled Green P cherry tree he would learn that people love that tree. But in his mind it’s good enough that he put it there. And that’s what people who grow in public spaces need to understand. You can’t control it. You can never really control it anyway just as you can’t control the climate, the wind.
One of my Flickr albums documents this story: On either side of the street near the railway underpass on Howland avenue there used to be thick rows of serviceberry bushes. I used to call and tweet all my friends to come out to pick when the time was right. Local people would come out at dusk, bring out wine from their houses and join in. It was a regular thing and no one over-picked them or took more than their share. And it wouldn’t matter if you took all the berries anyway, it just meant that year others wouldn’t. But then they did the work on the bridge, they took all the bushes out and they haven’t put them back in.
Now there’s nothing there. It’s sad because it wasn’t just a length of bushes.
Suzanne Long, “Serviceberry season” Flickr album
View the local fruit sites discussed in Google Maps.
Apples of Uncommon Character: 123 Heirlooms, Classics and Little Known Modern Wonders by Rowan Jacobsen, Bloomsbury, 2014