When the temperatures start to drop and the days get shorter, we know it’s time to welcome in apple season. We tend to think of these tart, sweet fruits as an American staple. They take our minds to classic American treats like homemade apple pie, hot apple cider, and boxed apple juice. We give all the credit to one man named Johnny Appleseed, who transported apple seeds throughout the northeast and midwest regions of the newly-formed United States. But what do we really know about apples, and where did Johnny get all those seeds from?
Apples first appeared in Kazakhstan around 6500 BC and made their way to Europe and the Americas over time. Apples are a unique and wondrous crop because each time a seed is planted, it becomes a unique variety of apple specific to its region and climate. The same apple seed planted in Massachusetts and Washington would eventually grow into two distinct apple varieties, which is how 7,500 different kinds have appeared around the world since originating in Eastern Europe thousands of years ago.
Apples of Today
Red Delicious. Jonagold. Fuji. Granny Smith. Honeycrisp. Gala. The list of apple varieties goes on and on, with more than 100 being commercially grown in the United States today. While 100 seems like a lot, and more than anyone could ever need, there are actually 2,500 different kinds grown in the United States.
In the modern food system, however, consumers want food they recognize while also not being overwhelmed by 7,500 different kinds of apples to choose from in the produce aisle. To achieve the uniformity that people want, farmers had to find a different way to grow apples. This is where the process of grafting comes in. In the simplest terms, grafting an apple tree involves taking a piece of one apple tree and attaching it to another apple tree until the two grafted pieces grow together into one tree of the same variety as its original piece. Grafting is how farmers have managed to grow and develop the few recognizable apple varieties sold in grocery stores across the country.
Fun Fact: The science of apple growing is called pomology.
In 2017, 183 billion pounds of apples were grown worldwide. Only 6% of the world total came from the US, the world’s second-largest producer after China. Turkey, Poland and India round out the top-five apple producing countries. In the US, Washington produces the most apples, with New York trailing far behind. Combined, the two states grow 75% of our country’s apples - a whopping 11.5 billion pounds in total in 2017. Apples are the second most valuable fruit grown in the US, after oranges.
Farm to Pantry
When an apple tree is first planted - or grafted - it takes three to five years before bearing any fruit. Another finicky requirement of apple trees is that they need to go through a specific number of chilling hours in the winter to overcome dormancy (aka tree hibernation). After getting all their chilling hours, apple trees then need a specific number of days above 40 degrees fahrenheit before new growth can begin in the springtime. Pink and white flowers usually begin to appear on apple trees between early April and mid-May, giving off one of the most glorious smells of springtime. The apples are finally ready to harvest beginning in August and stretch until the end of October, depending on the variety.
Fun Fact: It takes the photosynthesized energy from 50 leaves to produce one apple.
The growth cycle of an apple tree used to be predictable and reliable, but as the weather has become more varied over the last few decades, late season hard frosts have often killed entire apple crops that started producing fruit too early after colder-than-average winters. The other major challenge to growing apples is their susceptibility to disease. As with all crops, genetic diversity is a plant’s natural defense mechanism against pests and disease. With only 100 different apple varieties being grown for sale in the US out of the 7,500 total varieties in the world, this means that apples have become more similar and therefore more prone to disease over time.
For this and many other reasons, organic apples are difficult to grow and hard to source at a reasonable price and volume for small food companies like ours. The dried apples in our Spiced Ginger Apple Seed Bar are a mix of Red Delicious, Gala, and Granny Smith apples from Argentina. Like all dried apples, they undergo a pre-treatment soak in an acidic water solution in order to reduce oxidation, preserve color, improve vitamin C content, and protect against bacterial activity. Some dried apples also get a sulfur dioxide treatment, which prevents discoloration and mold growth during the drying process. However, our dried apples are unsulfured, not only because many people are actually allergic to sulfur dioxide, but also because we prefer apples with the fewest preservatives and the purest flavors.
Above all, we love using dried apples because they add a subtle sweetness and a good amount of fiber, potassium, and antioxidants to our seed bars. While we look for specific qualities in our apples, you might just want the perfect apple for your first crumble of the season. For pies, crumbles, and other baked apple treats, we recommend Granny Smiths because they stay firm through baking. Honeycrisp, Fuji, and Pink Lady are great for adding raw to salads because they don’t brown too quickly and have a crisp bite to them.
Whichever variety you choose, apples are incredibly versatile ingredients. From cider and pie to sauce and raw, apples are one of our favorite fall crops. As a Boston-based food company, we celebrate apples as a symbol of the fall harvest and the changing of the seasons. We spend our weekends at local orchards, eating apple cider donuts and filling bushels and pecks with everything from Braeburn to Zulu. But more than anything, apples remind us of home and history. Thanks Johnny Appleseed, we owe you one.