Matt Kaminsky finds nature and nurture in a hilltown apple orchard in Western Massachusetts.
It’s fall in Massachusetts, and I’m traveling to a different apple orchard daily, making sure the fruit gets harvested on time from the different sites that I look after. Some days I find myself in the puckerbrush, tromping over blackberry and multiflora rose to reach piles of windfallen wild apples in abandoned pastures. Other days I spend my time with stately old trees laid out in rows. I love the variety of sites that I get to visit during this time of year. It’s been very dry and mild this fall, so fruit is ripening nice and slowly. This allows plenty of time for making the rounds to the dozens of sites where I harvest. Starting with orchards located furthest south in my orbit, and ending with those furthest north, I will be busy during these twelve or so weeks ranging September to November.
I’ve just stopped to visit to a few noteworthy, unique seedling apple trees on the side of the road, collected their offerings, and continued on. In my truck I have some ovate, crow’s-egg-looking oddball apples from one tree, which tasted like pineapple, next to a crate of large, round, green, and sweet-tasting ones, and another crate of aromatic fruit from an old hollow beast just next to it, which might be an old grafted apple called Mother. But those are just the bonuses. Today, my real goal is to check on the hilltown Baldwins—a very special instance of Malus domestica ‘Baldwin’—growing in one of my favorite places. Some years ago, I was introduced to this old orchard by a former professor of mine, located far up in the hills west of the Connecticut River, on a homestead site in Franklin County. This remote site experiences its own microclimate, a bit colder than the surrounding countryside, and the blossom and fruit development are always further behind the orchards down in the river valley. Last week, I helped the crew at an orchard seated down in the valley at the base of Mount Norwottuck clean-pick the remainder of their ‘Baldwin’ crop, which had been steadily dropping fruit for a couple of weeks already. I’d estimate that the ‘Baldwin’ orchard up in the hills hadn’t dropped a single apple yet, but that they’d be coming along at their own pace, ready to harvest any day now.
When I was first introduced to this special old orchard, it was in the middle of winter, and snow was falling. We couldn’t tell what kind of apples the trees were. All I could see was perhaps two dozen hulking behemoths standing in the field, reveling in their dormancy. It also was apparent the trees hadn’t been cared for in many, many years and badly needed pruning. My professor had described the fruit to me in rich detail, which made my imagination race with wonder and anticipation. Come the first harvest after pruning, we learned that all but just a couple of the trees were Baldwins. One of the most iconic Bay State apples, their intense fiery red skin, balanced, sharp, subacid flavor, and signature hardness (so hard it may register on the Mohs scale used by geologists) are unmistakable. However, these are not just any ‘Baldwin’ apples. Though they are grafted, and therefore genetically identical with all other ‘Baldwin’ trees, these ones hit different.
They are ancient, massive trees. By counting the rings of limbs that I pruned off, and comparing to the size of the trunks, it is nearly certain that they pre-date WWII. History books and old timers alike hold that all the Baldwins in Massachusetts were killed by an unusually harsh winter in 1934, after which most growers gave up on the cultivar. Few intact ‘Baldwin’ orchards from that era remain. Some of the trees in this orchard have expressed the rootstock as multiple smaller trunks coming from the ground, producing different types of fruit than the main trunks, which produce Baldwin apples. Each individual tree’s rootstock produces unique, intriguing apples, which don’t resemble one another in any way. Their flavors are eccentric—some are more interesting than the Baldwins! This signals to me that this orchard was originally grafted onto seedlings rather than a standardized rootstock. Of course, each of the seeds they planted wouldn’t come true to its parent, but rather would produce a unique apple tree. This is due to the trait of extreme heterozygosity that Malus displays, hence why the auxiliary trunks produce such wildly odd fruit.
Trees growing on seedling roots are generally known for their ability to thrive in adverse conditions, and indeed the soil here is somewhat inhospitable. From the fact that the main understory plant growing around the apple trees is lowbush blueberry, we can tell that it is very acidic. In most cases, soils that support prolific barrens of blueberries will prove too harsh for apple trees, which prefer a higher pH. Moreover, the extensive outcroppings of smooth, gray ledge throughout the orchard indicate that the topsoil layer is shallow. The roots have plunged through gaps and cracks in the stones to gain anchorage.
It would be hard to imagine an apple more intensely flavored, saturated in color, and sound of form. Piquing, sparkling acidity is coupled with plentiful juice and lovely, lingering, winey notes of tart cherry and a full mouthfeel. The ‘Baldwin’ apples from these hilltown trees are smaller, firmer, redder, and more flavorful than the orchard down in the river valley, where the harvest is just finishing up. Those ‘Baldwin’ trees are grafted onto MM.111, a widely-established commercial rootstock common in the US since the 1950s, and are at least forty years younger than those in the hilltown orchard. The valley trees also have a leafier, more upright growing habit than the twisty, winding branches of their older counterparts. The fruit is more plentiful, larger in size, and less intense in color, with little bits of green showing through. The juicy, firm flesh is rich in flavor, with notes of cranberry, but doesn’t linger and isn’t as complex. They lack the intense phenolics present in the older hill Baldwins, which add texture and depth, though they’re still enjoyable.
The apples that I’m describing seem different from each other. In fact, if you didn’t know that they were both ‘Baldwin’, you might not even be aware that they’re the same type of apple, indeed genetically identical. How does the same scion, grafted and growing in two different locations, produce fruit so varied in appearance and flavor?
An apple fruit represents the sum of all variables that are a part of the tree and its surroundings. The genetic material contained within an individual specimen is filtered through a set of environmental and cultural qualities, which can vary greatly from place to place. Nature is nurture, the marriage of genome and environment. It is subject to the influence of all life around it; the activity of other organisms interacting with the tree, the qualities of the soil it’s growing in, the weather, the influence of humans, chemicals, the rootstock they are grafted on, and so on. What appearances of the fruit are caused by the interactions of insects or disease? What flavors of the fruit are imparted by a particular deficiency or nutrient surplus in the soil? What practical elements of using the fruit, such as storage quality or size, are impacted by the tree’s environment? What factors are we unaware of?
Once a variety like ‘Baldwin’ is widely established, the genetic blueprint, which is generally static and inextricable (except where mutations occur), is replicated many times via grafting. When it is grown over a wide geographic area and under cultural methods that differ greatly, we begin to see that many different incarnations of the same apple begin to appear. As with the valley Baldwins and the hilltown Baldwins, the differences, slight or significant as they may be, are immutable.
When I consider that ‘Baldwin’, as well as most named apple varieties, originated as a seedling, it makes me wonder how different the apples I’m experiencing today might be from the original ‘Baldwin’ tree that was discovered in Wilmington, Massachusetts, in 1740. How did the fruit from that original ‘Baldwin’ tree taste? How many millions of ‘Baldwin’ trees have lived and died since 1740? How many incarnations of ‘Baldwin’ have apple growers experienced? These are the questions that run through my mind with all apples I am eating, whether some famed old heirloom like these Baldwins, or some as-yet-unknown seedling, from an old rootstock, a roadside wild apple, or a tree found growing in the woods.
As seasons have come and gone, and I’ve had chances to taste the venerable ‘Baldwin’ apple from dozens of sites, from trees with different stories and different personalities, I can say with confidence that these oldest, most distinguished, and unique seedling trees produce my favorite incarnation.
Matt Kaminsky goes by the moniker Gnarly Pippins in his work at the intersection of cidermaking, apple culture, orchard management, and wild-apple foraging.
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