Select Page

by Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan

While the Chinese will be celebrating 2010 as the Year of the Tiger, we in America have historically had no tigers except those in zoos and circuses. But what we once have had many of—heirloom apples—are now in danger of becoming as rare as tigers are in Asia. Of some 15,000 to 16,000 apple varieties that have been named, grown and eaten on the North American continent, only about 3,000 remain widely accessible. Roughly nine out of ten apples varieties historically grown in the U.S. are at risk of falling out of cultivation, and falling off our tables.

One apple variety, Red Delicious, comprises 41% of the entire American apple crop, and eleven varieties produce 90% of all apples sold in chain grocery stores. Much of the apple juice, puree and sauce consumed in the United States is now produced in other countries. And as the overall number of apple trees in cultivation declined to a forth of what it was a century ago, the number of apple varieties considered threatened or endangered has now peaked at 94 percent. These are not just abstract statistics, for they affect not only our health, but also the health of our landscapes.

One driver of the decline in available apple diversity has been the loss of roughly 600 independently owned nurseries over the last fifteen years. They have had their business usurped by the garden-and-lawn departments (“pseudo nurseries”) of big-box stores, which offer far fewer apples. Perhaps just as problematic is that over the last half century, there has been a dramatic loss of traditional knowledge about apple cultivation and varietal usage.

But the worst may be yet to come. Climate change may be one of several natural and man-made factors reducing the number of chill hours being received in apple growing areas, leading to predictions that within four decades, apple production may be lost from orchard-rich regions like the Central Valley of California and from southern Pennsylvania.

There are signs of hope, however. Despite the economic downturn, heirloom and antique apple varieties are being successfully marketed at many of the 5,000 farmers markets and 2,500 Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects in the U.S. In fact, some CSAs, like the one begun by Bill Moretz in North Carolina, specialize in introducing customers to heirloom apple diversity. Consumption of hard cider is also on the rise in America, offering a means to use many heirloom varieties not well-suited for eating fresh. Future market prospects for heirloom apples look good, both among chefs and cider makers.