Forgotten Fruits for Up North Foodies: Remembering the Shiawassee Beauty

By Paula McIntyre

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

By Gary Paul Nabhan, founder, Renewing America's Food Traditions

On its birthing grounds of Avon in Oakland County, Michigan, this outstanding seedling apple was simply called Nonsuch, for its flavor excelled even that of its famous parent, the French heirloom known as Fameuse or Snow. A bunch of these seedling apples soon ended up in the old Cargill nursery in Shiawassee County, where a farmer named Bebee Truesdell took notice of their vigor. By 1850, when the trees grown up from these seedlings first bore fruit on the Truesdell Farm, he and his neighbors realized that they had "a keeper"---the one in a thousand seedling apples destined for immortality. One of Truesdell's neighbors, Marvin Wilcox, was so taken by its "surpassing beauty, delicate texture and exquisite flavor" that he grafted out dozens of Nonsuch scions into his extensive orchard. Within two decades, the Michigan State Pomological Society promoted the apple renamed as the Shiawassee Beauty as being among the most desirable to grow in the region:

"No fall apple would be more esteemed---either for family use or for market purposes---than this native of our grand Peninsular State."

What then, has happened to this unsurpassed Beauty? How could a dessert apple described as "crisp, juicy and aromatic" simply disappear from our nurseries, farmer's markets and roadside stands? How could a strong, stately apple tree entirely vanish from the landscapes when it was once extensively planted from Saginaw to Grand Traverse in the Big Mitten, all the way to the Bitterroot Valley in Big Sky Country?

...Or has it disappeared altogether? Could it be out in the abandoned farmstead orchards Up North just waiting for someone to rediscover its remaining trees and positively identify its distinctive fruits?

In fact, there are dozens of time-tried heirloom fruits still hidden away in the abandoned, overgrown orchards surrounding the Great Lakes, just waiting for rediscovery. It is our task-- and potentially, our pleasure--to rediscover such forgotten beauties, and to bring them back to our kitchen tables, cider presses and baking ovens.

To gain a preliminary sense of what may potentially be still out in the landscape, it is critical to familiarize yourself with historic lists of introduced and native varieties grown by old-timers. Fortunately, Michigan has one of the best archives of such historic fruit inventories, for the Michigan State Agricultural Experiment Stations and the state's Pomological Society have published such lists for well over thirteen decades. Go to a county library or the special collections at a university, and you can find not only lists, but engraved drawings and detailed descriptions of forgotten fruits such as the Shiawassee Beauty. Of course, a short written description or a simple black-and-white sketch of a fruit may not be sufficient to definitively distinguish a Shiawassee Beauty from a Fameuse or Snow apple. You may need to make a chart of the non-visual traits which distinguish a Shiawassee from a Fameuse, such as its earlier maturation, its capacity to keep until January, its greater scab-resistance, and its superiority when cooked into sauces or baked into pies.

Once you have a sense what you may be looking for, it is advisable to talk with local elders who may recall where the oldest extant orchards in the area may be tucked away. Sometimes, you can find in archives of state and county fairs the names of families from particular counties who grew prize-winning fruits of particular varieties in their orchards. Using old property records, maps and memoirs found in local historical societies, you might be able to discern where these orchards were located, and then learn of the current landowners. With their permission, you might sample the surviving trees at harvest time for their various and sundry fruit, then attempt to identify these fruit to variety. The fruit that you can't identify on your own can be saved and sent to state or national experts, with notes on the seasonality and other features of their parent trees. Oftentimes, retired nurserymen are the best to help with such a task, for they have memories of the morphological features, texture and flavor of various apples deeply embedded in their minds and bodies.

Once you have a forgotten fruit tentatively identified as a rare heirloom, it's time to take cuttings of scion wood for grafting onto several strains of hardy rootstocks. If you can't make place for them in your own orchard, perhaps the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station not too far outside Traverse City might raise them up for you. In this way, you can play a modest but meaningful part in keeping alive the thousands of fruit varieties which once frequented American landscapes. Of some 14,000 named apple varieties once grown in North America, less than 1200 remain accessible from commercial nurseries. No more than 19 apple varieties make up most of the grocery store fare from year to year, but fortunately for us, the times they are a changin'. Today, more than ever before in the last half century, heirloom apples and other fruits are getting respect--and room for restoration--once again. Hard cider makers, apple brandy distillers, soft cider pressers, bakers and chefs are thirsty for new flavors, colors and aromas in their businesses.

Many heirloom fruits may have gone down since World War II, but all of them have not necessarily been knocked out. Somewhere in a secondary forest or on any abandoned farmstead near you, there is an apple waiting to be picked. May its discovery give you as much pleasure as a similar endeavor did to Adam and Eve!

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