The Botany of Desire Part 2







Chapter 1: Desire: Sweetness. Plant: The Apple

If you were on the banks of the Ohio River in 1806 – somewhere just to the north of Wheeling, West Virginia, say – you would probably have noticed a strange makeshift craft drifting lazily down the river. At the time, this particular stretch of the Ohio, wide and brown and bounded on both sides by steep shoulders of land thick with oaks and hickories, fairly boiled with river traffic, as a ramshackle armada of keelboats and barges ferried settlers from the comparative civilization of Pennsylvania to the wilderness of the Northwest Territory.

The peculiar craft you’d caught sight of that afternoon consisted of a pair of hollowed-out logs that had been lashed together to form a rough catamaran, a sort of canoe plus sidecar. In one of the dugouts lounged the figure of a skinny man of about thirty, who may or may not have been wearing a burlap coffee sack for a shirt and a tin pot for a hat. According to the man in Jefferson County who deemed he scene worth recording, the fellow in the canoe appeared to be snoozing without a care in the world, evidently trusting the river to take him wherever it was he wanted to go. The other hull, his sidecar, was riding low in the water under the weight of a small mountain of seeds that had been carefully blanketed with moss and mud to keep them from drying out in the sun.

The fellow snoozing in the canoe was John Chapman, already known by his nickname: Johnny Appleseed. He was on his way to Marietta, where the Muskingum River pokes a big hole into the Ohio’s northern bank, pointing straight into the heart of the Northwest Territory. Chapman’s plan was to plant a tree nursery along one of that river’s as-yet-unsettled tributaries, which drain the fertile, thickly forested hills of central Ohio as far north as Mansfield. In all likelihood, Chapman was coming from Allegheny County in western Pennsylvania to which he returned each year to collect apple seeds, separating them out from the fragrant mounds of pomac that rose by the back door of every cider mill. A single bushel of apple seeds would have been enough to plant more than three hundred thousand trees; there’s no way of telling how many bushels of seed Chapman had in tow that day, but its safe to say his catamaran was bearing several whole orchards into the wilderness.

The image of John Chapman and his heap of apple seeds riding together down the Ohio has stayed with me since I first came across it a few years ago in an out-of-print biography. The scene, for me, has the resonance of myth – a myth about how plants and people learned to use each other, each doing for the other things they could not do for themselves, in the bargain changing each other and improving their lot.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote that ‘it is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man,’ and much of the American chapter of that story can be teased out of Chapman’s story. It’s the story of how pioneers like him helped domesticate the frontier by seeding it with Old World plants. ‘Exotics,’ we’re apt to call these species today in disparagement, yet without them the American wilderness might never have become a home. What did the apple get in return? A golden age: untold new varieties and half a world of new habitat.

  • More than most of us do, Chapman seems to have had a knack for looking at the world from the plant’s point of view – pomocentrically,’ you might say.
  • He understood he was working for the apples as much as they were working for him.
  • Try as they might, people have never been able to domesticate the oak tree, whose highly nutritious acorns remain far too bitter for humans to eat. Evidently the oak has such a satisfactory arrangement with the squirrel that the tree has never needed to enter into any kind of formal arrangement with us.
  • The apple has been far more eager to do business with humans, and perhaps nowhere more so than in America, in which Chapman played such a pivotal role.
  • Chapman preferred to get out ahead of the settlers moving west, planting a nursery on a tract of wilderness he judged ripe for settlement and then waiting. By the time the settlers arrived, he’d have apple trees ready to sell them.
  • By the 1830s John Chapman was operating a chain of nurseries that reached all the way from western Pennsylvania through central Ohio and into Indiana.
  • It was in Fort Wayne that Chapman died in 1845 – wearing the infamous coffee sack, some say, yet leaving an estate that included some 1,200 acres of prime real estate. The barefoot crank died a wealthy man.
  • Apples don’t ‘come true’ from seeds – that is, an apple tree grown from a seed wild be a wildling bearing little resemblance to its parents.
  • Anyone who wants edible apples plants grafted trees, for the fruit of seedling apples is almost always inedible.
  • Most judged them good for little but hard cider. Apples were something that people drank. Johnny Appleseed was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier.

Two facts about these seeds are worth noting. First they contain a small quantity of cyanide, probably a defense the apple evolved to discourage animals from biting into them; they’re almost indescribably bitter.

The second, more important fact about those seeds concerns their genetic contents, which are likewise full of surprises. Every seed in that apple, not to mention every seed riding down the Ohio olongside John Chapman, contains the genetic instruction for a completely new and different apple tree, one that, if planted, would bear only the most glancing resemblance to its parents. If not for grafting – the ancient technique of cloning trees – every apple in the world would be its own distinct variety, and it would be impossible to keep a good one going beyond the life span of that particular tree.

  • More than any other single trait, it is the apple’s genetic variability that accounts for its ability to make itself at home in places as different from one another as New England and New Zealand, Kazakhstan and California.
  • Wherever the apple tree goes, its offspring propose so many different variations – at least five per apple, several thousand per tree – that a couple of these novelties are almost bound to have whatever qualities it takes to prosper in the tree’s adopted home.
  • True domestication had to await the invention of grafting by the Chinese who discovered that a slip of wood cut from a desirable tree could be notched into the trunk of another tree.
  • Once this graft ‘took,’ the fruit produced on new wood growing out from the juncture would share the characteristics of its more desirable parent, allowing the Greeks and Romans to select and propagate the choicest specimens.
  • According to Pliny, the Romans cultivated twenty-three different varieties of apples, some of which they took to England.
  • The earliest immigrants to America had brought grafted Old World apple trees with them, but in general these trees fared poorly in their new home.
  • But the colonists also planted seeds, often saved from apples eaten during their Atlantic passage, and these seedling trees, called ‘pippins,’ eventually prospered (especially after the colonists imported honeybees to improve pollination).
  • In effect, the apple, like the settlers themselves, had to forsake its former domestic life and return to the wild before it could be reborn as an American –as Newtown Pippins and Baldwins, Golden Russets and Jonathans.
  • By reverting to wild ways – to sexual reproduction and going to seed – the apple was able to reach down into its vast store of genes, accumulated over the course of its travels through Asia and Europe, and discover the precise combination of traits required to survive in the New World.
  • The apple probably also found what it needed by hybridising with the wild American crabs, which are the only native American apple trees.
  • Thanks to the species’ inherent prodigality, coupled with the work of individuals like John Chapman, in a remarkably short period of time the New World had its own apples, adapted to the soil and climate and day length of North America, apples that were as distinct from the old European stock as the Americans themselves.
  • Chapman was selling cheaply something that everybody wanted – something everybody in Ohio needed by law, because a land grant required a settler to ‘set out at least fifty apple or pear trees’ as a condition of his deed.
  • The sensation of sweetness in the lives of most people came chiefly from the flesh of fruit. And in America that usually meant the apple.
  • Anthropologists have found that cultures vary enormously in their liking for bitter, sour, and salty flavours, but a taste for sweetness appears to be universal.
  • Sugar is the form in which nature stores food energy. By encasing their seeds in sugary and nutritious flesh, fruiting plants such as apple hit on an ingenious way of exploiting the mammalian sweet tooth: in exchange for fructose, the animals provide the seeds with transportation, allowing the plant to expand its range.
  • As parties to this grand coevolutionary bargain, animals with the strongest predilection for sweetness and plants offering the biggest, sweetest fruits prospered together and multiplied, evolving into the species we see, and are, today.
  • Alcohol is of course, the other great beneficence of sugar: it is made by encouraging certain yeasts to dine on the sugars manufactured in plants. The sweetest fruit makes the strongest drink, and in the north, where grapes didn’t do well, that was usually the apple.
  • Up until prohibition, an apple grown in America was far less likely to be eaten than to wind up in a barrel of cider.
  • Just about the only reason to plant an orchard of the sort of seedling apples John Chapman had for sale would have been its intoxicating harvest of drink, available to anyone with a press and a barrel.
  • Eventually Prohibitionists would launch their campaign to chop down apple trees.
  • It wasn’t until this century that the apple acquired its reputation for wholesomeness – ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ was a marketing slogan dreamed up by growers concerned that temperance would cut into sales.

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