In a recent interview, Tom Brown had gestured towards his apple orchard at his home in North Carolina’s Clemmons. There points at some trees maturing in clusters. He used to be a chemical engineer who has retired for a long time. The 79-year-old is also known as the Appalachian Apple Hunter. He has a habit of telling stories occasionally while talking about apple varieties. There are unusual names like the Night Dropper, Yellow Bellflower, Rabun Bald, Royal Lemon, Candy Stripe, and Black Winesap. Then he pairs them with stories from the lore of pomology.
Apple Hunting Is No Less Than Treasure Hunting
An example is an apple known as the Junaluska. Legend says that the variety was a standard for Cherokee Indians in the area around the Smoky Mountains. Their origin dates back over two hundred years and had the name of their greatest patron. The chief was present at the beginning of the 1800s. Orchardists that have been around for a long time say that the apple was a favorite in the South. However, at the turn of the century, it disappeared. Brown began to search for it at the beginning of this century after he came across some references in an orchard catalog from the Antebellum era. The catalog was found in North Carolina’s Franklin.
Then he did some detective work to find the orchard in a rural area that had last operated in 1859. Then he used a local hobbyist and mailman to serve as the guide. After that, the two went through every person to find traces of the ancient apple trees. An ancient woman then pointed them to an abandoned orchard in the mountains. The Appalachian apple hunter then identified the one tree of Junaluska that matched the records. Next, he brought back a clipping to reintroduce the apple.
There are dozens of tales like this that the Appalachian Apple Hunter has experience over the two and a half decades of his search. Till now, he has managed to reclaim nearly 1200 types. His orchard known as Heritage Apples has the rarest 700 ones. Some are clones from the last remaining one.
The Appalachian Apple Hunter’s Origin
Brown says that the apples were present during the generations of his great-grandparents. Thousands are still out there that have not been saved. But time is running out. This is mainly because the people who know about them are usually very old, well past their eighties. Moreover, every year, trees get destroyed by blights, beetles, development, and storms. So the Appalachian apple hunter has made it his mission to beat the clock.
He first came to know about heritage apples in 1998 when he visited a market for historic farmers. Brown says that he saw a basket filled with apples that looked strange. The colors range between bright green, yellow-streaked, purplish-black, and sunset pink. The sizes ranged from being as small as plums to being the size of softballs. Their names were just as varied: Billy Sparks Sweetening, Arkansas Black, White Winter Jon, and Bitter Buckingham. Tasting trays induced a range of textures and flavors.
The Appalachian apple hunter’s enthusiasm had been pricked by the offering. He talked with Maurice Marshall, a late orchardist, who was the vendor. He found out that hundreds can still be reclaimed if expeditions were undertaken throughout Appalachia. Brown says that rediscovering an apple lost for centuries was a major source of inspiration.
Then he realized that so many fruits could not have simply disappeared. Brown then dedicated all his time to find out the history of the heritage apples of Appalachia.
Urban migration had destroyed the fruits gradually, Brown discovered. Conglomerates preferred apples that had a shorter maturity time while they can withstand shipping over long distances. Now, he has to drive over 30000 miles annually to locate apples. But for the Appalachian apple hunter, it is just another thrilling hunt for a fulfilling reward.