By Doug Nichols
Autumn is apple time across America — crisp fruit and sweet cider. The season may bring to mind that American folk hero Johnny Appleseed. You probably know him from the 1958 Disney film “American Legends,” which portrayed him as a young man traveling on the western frontier in the early 1800s, unselfishly planting apple trees for settlers to enjoy. But the true story of John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, is somewhat different.
In his excellent book, “The Botany of Desire” (New York: Random House, 2001), author Michael Pollan reveals more about John Chapman and the actual nature of his travels. He was born Sept. 26, 1774, and lived to be 70. He spent his adult life as a wanderer, healer, evangelist and peacemaker with Native Americans. Chapman (a vegetarian) would not harm animals in any way. Thus, he traveled on foot rather than on horseback because he believed riding would have been cruel to the animal. He never married or stayed in one place very long.
He arrived in Ohio by 1800 (Ohio was the western frontier of the United States in those days). The legend of Johnny Appleseed has him spreading apple seeds randomly, everywhere he went. In fact, he planted apple-tree nurseries, built fences around them and left them in the care of neighbors. He returned every year or two to tend them. He collected new apple seeds each year from behind cider mills in western Pennsylvania from the pulp remaining after the juice had been pressed from the apples. He stayed ahead of the advancing waves of settlers coming to Ohio and Indiana so that when they arrived, his apple-tree seedlings were ready for sale. The settlers were happy to buy the seedlings. Chapman was a successful businessman who left an estate of over 1,200 acres of apple tree nurseries to his sister, which even in those days were worth millions.
But in detail, the story gets more complicated. As Pollan discusses in his book, apple trees do not “come true” from seeds. An apple tree grown from a seed will bear small, sour fruit quite unsuitable for eating. To raise edible apples, one needs to plant grafted trees. So, was Johnny cheating the settlers? Certainly not, because the basically inedible apples from his trees were pressed into cider.
Every settler had, or had access to, a cider press. Cider was a very popular drink everywhere in America in those days. And in the days before refrigeration, sweet cider was unknown. All cider soon fermented naturally and became what we call hard cider, and that was what the settlers wanted. Cider (as it was simply known to all) was easier to make and probably healthier than corn liquor. Cider could be distilled into applejack for a stronger drink.
So, Johnny Appleseed knew what he was up to: bringing inexpensive alcohol to the frontier. And by the way, he had no use for grafted apple trees. He thought it wicked to cut living plants in such ways.
Doug Nichols was a Scientist Emeritus with the U.S. Geological Survey and a Research Associate with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He was a resident of Berthoud. We mourn Doug’s untimely passing in Jan. 2010.