Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Apple picking in friends' backyard

Apples! The pride of the Union Square Greenmarket, where you can buy over 60 varieties (and counting).

But what the heck are they doing growing in my friends' backyard?

I surprised myself by acting like an urban hayseed. It's not like I don't grow produce myself. I covet the sour cherry tree on 19th Street near 2nd Avenue! And I fondly recall the crab apple trees that were common in my childhood home in Queens. But I betray my urban sensibilities when I encounter real apple trees in a backyard, full of fruit ripe for the picking.

My friends Joan and Frank have a house in Stony Brook, a college town on Long Island. They planted two apple trees in honor of their young grandsons, Tyler and Cameron.

Joan and Frank described the apple trees as McIntosh and Red Delicious, probably the two most popular varieties in New York. The McIntosh tree, bearing round red fruit, was indeed a McIntosh, but I had my doubts about the Red Delicious. "They're not ripe yet," Joan said of the still-green fruit. But they looked full-sized and ripe to me, despite its green color.

Feeling curious, I picked one of the green apples - you can do that with a tree in your backyard - examined it. The apple looked like it was as big as it was going to be; all of the apples on the tree did. I washed the mystery apple and cut it up. This was not a Red Delicious at all, but rather some variety of green, semi-tart apple. 

I reviewed the inventory of greenish apples I had in my head. Too small and tart for Mutsu. Too sweet for Rhode Island Greening. Didn't really look nor taste like Granny Smith. What was this apple?

I took a couple of apples, thinking I would ask one of the Union Square apple farmers. I ended up eating them instead. That happens a lot with fruit and me.
So I described the green apples to some farmers, and we played the "Who Am I?" game. The most compelling guesses were two heirloom varieties I had never heard of: Briggs Auburn, a variety so obscure it doesn't even get a mention on the comprehensive fruit fetish site Orange Pippin, and Chehalis. Could this simple Red Delicious apple tree really be an obscure heirloom variety instead? Apple trees grown from seed can cross-pollinate to become a different variety than expected. Maybe that's what happened here.

I decided not to get too hung up on the green apple's mysterious identity, which left plenty of room to mull over the pleasure of having an apple tree in the first place. There were apples to eat and apples to squish and throw into the brook behind the house.

There were apples to observe as science experiments, as in this one, Bugs Like Apples.

And of course humans, ants and worms aren't the only animals to admire apple trees. Deer and rabbits love them too, as Joan noted ruefully. But there is enough to share, and enough to continue to engage Tyler and Cameron for years to come - hanging out in the shade of the trees, playing with the fruit, and sustained by its flavor and nutrition.

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