Almost all wild apples are handsome. They cannot be too gnarly and crabbed and rusty to look at.
-Henry David Thoreau from “Wild Apples”, The Atlantic, November 1862
I am an inveterate scrounger of “wild” apples. If I see a heavily laden tree along a back road, I am more likely than not to stop and taste one of the fruit. More often than not, a handful of those fruit, no matter how tart or tannic, will find its way into my truck to be consumed at a latter time. If I am walking a woodland and find an abandoned orchard or farmstead, my pockets will bulge with fruit when I continue on my way. The apples found on these abandoned or wild trees will not be “perfect”. They might have rust, scabs, or worm holes. They will probably be small. They are usually lumpy and misshapen. Thoreau had much to say about their “beauty”.
The gnarliest will have some redeeming traits even to the eye. You will discover some evening redness dashed or sprinkled on some protuberance or in some cavity. It is rare that the summer lets an apple go without streaking or spotting it on some part of its sphere. It will have some red stains, commemorating the mornings and evenings it has witnessed; some dark and rusty blotches, in memory of the clouds and foggy, mildewy days that have passed over it; and a spacious field of green reflecting the general face of Nature,—green even as the fields; or a yellow ground, which implies a milder flavor,—yellow as the harvest, or russet as the hills.
If you’ve ever visited Peterson Natural Area in Mecosta County, you might have discovered a few “wild” trees. In a former life, Peterson Natural Area was a working farm. Like most working farms of an earlier age, it included an orchard with a variety of trees for personal use. And like many old farms, it was also home to several wild apple trees. These trees popped up in corners of pastures, on hillsides, along creeks, in fencerows and rockpiles, and along lanes. Really anywhere that wasn’t cultivated could become home to one of these wild trees. These trees grew from seed – a tossed core; an apple hidden by a squirrel; droppings from a deer, fox, raccoon, or bird that had consumed the fruit; discarded in the pulp from pressing cider. The seeds could be spread in a myriad of ways.
Unlike some species of fruit, apples do not breed true to form. An apple tree grown from seed will not produce fruit like that from its parent tree. Some trees will produce barely edible fruit, real “spitters” – great for adding to cider, but not for eating out of hand. Other will be too mealy or insipid to be pleasant eating. This is why commercial apples are always grown from scions (or cuttings) of known trees grafted to a base. While some of these varieties are tasty, they are more often chosen for their appearance or their storage qualities.
There are more than a dozen wild or abandoned trees at Peterson Natural Area. About a third of them are “spitters”, another third are edible, a couple are quite good, and one or two are transcendent. Utterly and completely the best apples you will ever eat bar none. Once again, Thoreau has much to say…
These apples have hung in the wind and frost and rain till they have absorbed the qualities of the weather or season, and thus are highly seasoned, and they pierce and sting and permeate us with their spirit. They must be eaten in season, accordingly,—that is, out-of-doors.
If you’re in the neighborhood of Peterson Natural Area, I encourage you to take some time exploring its apples. But I’m not telling you which ones are the best. They’re waiting for you to discover – IF you can beat me and the beasts and the birds to them.