“Ugly” is not the first word that comes to mind when considering which apple to eat. It does, however, describe the appearance of many heirloom apple varieties that have been lost since the standardization of the modern food system. The wild or “ugly” apple is known to have originated in Kazakhstan, and was brought to North America soon after the English settled in 1607. As cider became popular in the United States, apple seeds and grafted seedlings were planted throughout the country. This brought great biodiversity to the South with as many as 1,800 different heirloom varieties. Only 500 of those varieties, however, are still known to be in existence. This decline led Creighton Lee Calhoun, Jr. to serve as one of the foremost leaders in apple conservation in North America. He has dedicated his life to researching, growing and celebrating this ancient fruit, and has published his work in Old Southern Apples. Today, many of these old southern heirloom varieties are at risk of disappearing forever.
Inspired by Lee Calhoun’s love for apples, Salem Neff is working with her mother, Margaret Norfleet Neff, to continue the tradition of planting and growing out old southern heirloom apples. They are initiating the Southern Heirloom Apple Tree Project to revive cultural heritage and regional biodiversity. As a part of this project, the southern heirloom apple varieties, Sparger (origins in Mount Airy, NC) and Dula’s Beauty (origins in Caldwell County, NC) were planted in the historic Reynolda Gardens earlier this month. This mother-daughter team would like to encourage universities, organizations, and members of the community also to plant and grow heirloom apple trees of their own to protect and celebrate geographic heritage, agricultural biodiversity, and to promote good stewardship of the land.
The Southern heirloom apple project and initial planting coincided with Wake Forest’s fall speaker series, Make Every Bite Count . During the kick-off panel event, orchardist Eliza Greenman challenged the audience to eat ugly apples in order to preserve our bio-cultural heritage and to diversify our regional food economy. The final series’ keynote speaker, Dr. Vandana Shiva, supported the call and challenged us further to consider the connections between our conceptions of beauty and standardization. Shiva, whose non-profit Navdanya includes a 50-acre working farm, joined the apple planting ceremony, skillfully transferring the trees and soil into their new homes. The apple trees complement Pawpaw and American Persimmon trees on the main campus.
Lee Calhoun reminds us to encourage our elders to pass down their stories of growing, cooking, eating and drinking the juice of these fruits. By identifying, nurturing, and choosing to eat these heirloom varieties, you can help preserve a heritage that once defined the region. For those interested in being part of the Southern Heirloom Apple Tree Project, please contact Salem and Margaret at email@example.com.
Wake Forest University also invites other colleges and universities to join us in celebrating agricultural biodiversity by propagating, cooking, studying, and celebrating foods with regional biocultural significance. Click here for more information.
Contributed by Jennifer Miller (’14), Special Campaign Coordinator