A bunch of red and green apples.
Georgia apples, fresh and local this season, are a highly versatile food. Photo by Stephanie Schupska, UGA.

John Chapman, an entrepreneur from Massachusetts, developed a forward-looking business model. He took a waste product that he could get for free, cultivated it over several years into a must-have item for other independent start-ups, and strategically positioned his sales outlets along developing travel routes.

Finally allowed to venture west of the Appalachian Mountains after the American colonists prevailed over the British in 1783, adventurous pioneers were required to plant 50 apple trees on their land before they could prove up on their homestead claims. While they might strap a beehive to the side of their wagons and keep the bees alive over several months of rough travel, the same was not true for 50 apple tree seedlings. They would need to acquire these later, near where they had settled. Anticipating this need, Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, filled sacks with discarded seeds from cider mills, hacked orchards out of dense forest from Pennsylvania to Indiana, and planted apple seeds.

Despite his good instincts and high demand for his products, Chapman never realized riches. Many of his customers were too poor to purchase his products. So Chapman took items in trade – which he often returned the next day – or gave trees away to help pioneers claim the west.

Apples require cross-pollination from a different variety to set fruit. Grown from seed, Chapman’s apple trees would be genetic wildcards, producing apples with wide variations in size, color, texture, taste, and vigor. Apple breeding programs at universities began in the early 1900s and are still on-going. These programs help develop cultivars with desirable traits, including disease resistance. Outstanding cultivars are replicated by cloning – using cuttings to propagate new plants, or grafting cuttings onto hardy rootstock. Cloned trees are genetically identical to the parent, so the fruit they produce is predictably standard.

Even as new cultivars hit the market, home orchardists are resurrecting heritage apple cultivars. Apples are highly versatile; they can be dried, sauced, jellied, preserved, baked, cidered, and of course eaten fresh from the tree.

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