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Fruit trees: history's movers & shakers.

From the Garden of Eden, through the mists of Avalon, man s existence has been sustained by a wealth of cultivated fruit. The proverbs of antiquity are ripe with images of burgeoning fig trees, the most-mentioned tree in the Bible. In ancient China, people ate plums for wisdom and insight. Today, decorations of plum blossoms are a common sight during Chinese New Year celebrations. The Koran depicts fruit trees as a sublime gift from God. The bond between fruit trees and mankind is ageless, filling the landscapes of our lives with food and folklore.

The word "fruit" comes to us compliments of the Roman Empire. The Romans were enamored by fruit of every sort, so much so that in 100 BC the famed Roman satirist, Horace, noted that Italy had become one giant fruit orchard. It comes as no great surprise to learn that the Latin word "furor," which means "I delight in," became the word of choice to describe the bounty of the Empire's plentiful orchards.

An apple a day

Apple trees are mankind's oldest friend. Archeologists have found evidence that apples were collected and dried during the Stone Age. As far back as 8,000 BC, traders travelling the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates Rivers brought apples from different provinces to outlying areas, expanding the gene pool and inspiring competition among growers who were enthralled with the new possibilities. In Mesopotamia, researchers found dried apples in the tombs of royalty, suggesting apples had some spiritual value. The ancient remains of preserved apples were found in Jericho. Researchers believe they are over ten thousand years old.

While there were many apple varieties in Europe in the 15th century, when the settlers disembarked on the shores of the New World, they found only crab apples. When word reached European traders that there was a need for new cultivars in the Americas, a flood of varieties arrived, literally, by the boat load.

The first American orchards were scraggly at best. There just weren't enough bees to pollinate all the new trees. It wasn't long before the settlers started importing bees by the boat load, too. Thanks to the settlers, over 7,000 varieties grow in the United States today.

The legend of Johnny Appleseed is a treasured piece of American folklore. As with all legends, the tale has become more colorful over the ages and changes from one geographical area to the next. Nonetheless, it is true. Johnny Appleseed, born John Chapman in 1774, in Massachusetts, is identified by historians as the foremost distributor of apple varieties in United States. He started collecting apple seeds from different cider-pressing facilities in Pennsylvania. Then, John Chapman joined the wave of settlers heading west. Along the way, he planted apple seeds from the Alleghenies to the plains. He gave away thousands of seeds to settlers. His generosity, gentle nature, and devotion to his Christian faith became legendary. He became Johnny Appleseed to the settlers and to all posterity.

Throughout the ages, mankind has enjoyed eating apples in every manner imaginable. But apples also have medicinal properties. It was J.T. Stinson, a popular turn-of-the-century horticulturist, who announced at the 1904 World's Fair, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away." According to, J.T. Stinson was right: "A new study has found that an antioxidant abundant in apples and some other fruits and vegetables protects brain cells against oxidative stress, a tissue-damaging process associated with Alzheimer's and other neuro--degenerative disorders." Experts are advising people to eat more fresh apples to strengthen their body's defenses against disease.

Apple trees are the perfect choice for the homestead. Not only do they provide healthy fruit that sustains and protects the body, they bear the tales of our heritage in their branches.

A plum on a thumb

Next to apples, plums are the most cultivated tree in the United States. When the settlers arrived in America, they found only small, wild plums. They began importing the common European variety. Today, the European variety is far more common in the United States than the wild type harvested by early Native Americans. In fact, the native Chickasaw, a wild plum variety, is becoming nearly impossible to find. Pioneering growers might consider cultivating this variety to preserve a fading piece of American history.

Our relationship with plums is celebrated in an enduring nursery rhyme:

Little Jack Horner sat in the corner Eating his Christmas pie; He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum, And said, "What a good boy am I!"

Plums are a continuing favorite in pies, rolls, sauces, and jellies and jams. And let's not forget the perennial American delight, the prune.

Today, 60 percent of prunes come from plum trees growing in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. According to the California Dried Plum Board, the California dried plum was discovered when westward bound agriculturists brought the Petite d'Agen plum from France to California during the Gold Rush.

While European settlers are responsible for populating the American landscape with domestic plums, plums didn't originate in Europe. Many researchers point to the writings of Confucius when discussing the origin of the plum tree. Besides being a gifted philosopher, Confucius was an exceptional cook who authored many thoughts on his favorite ingredient, the plum. In writings dating back to 479 BC, he describes the plum tree as a beautiful lover:

The branches of the aspen plum To and fro they sway How can I not think of her?

Researchers have found evidence of the Damson plum around Damascus. It is thought that these ancient writings and artifacts are over 2,000 years old. These trees, along with the variety Prunus domestica, which would later become the common European plum, migrated across the Asian continent, making their way into Europe as trade expanded.

Plums have extensive nutritional and medicinal value. In dried form, the skins supply nutrients that regulate the digestive system. The soluble fiber in plums slows the passage of food from the stomach, suppressing the appetite and normalizing sugar levels in the blood. People who are trying to lose weight should consider adding plenty of plums to their diet. The natural compounds in plums have been shown to lower cholesterol and prevent breast cancer in postmenopausal women.

The plain ol' chokecherry

This humble piece of American folklore was a primary source of food and medicine for the Native American tribes that populated the Great Plains before the settlers arrived. Indigenous people removed the pits before drying the bitter fruit for food. They knew then what scientists know now: The pits are poisonous. Chokecherries contain hydrocyanic acid a very potent poison that can cause death in concentrated doses. The concentration is especially high in the pits. In small doses, like in tea made from the bark, it can stimulate respiration. Native Americans used tea made from the root of chokecherry trees as a nerve tonic and sedative. Decoctions made from the bark of chokecherry trees were used to wash puncture wounds and lacerations.

There are other uses for the humble chokecherry besides food and medicine. Chokecherry wood doesn't burn well, making it the perfect choice for wooden skewers used to cook meat over an open pit. Furniture makers and crafters appreciate chokecherry wood because of its strength and durability. Chokecherry trees are an excellent choice for conservation-minded landowners. They make wonderful shelter belts for wildlife. Chokecherry trees are rather prolific, readily forming heavy thickets with intertwined roots. This makes them beneficial for controlling erosion near gullies and heavy wash-out areas.

Every August, man and his feathered friends compete vigorously for the bounty of small, deep purple fruits dangling from chokecherry trees in backyards across the nation. Winemakers covet the fruit as do syrup and jam producers. The birds covet them for food. Timing is everything; many a would-be fruit picker has arrived at their favorite chokecherry tree only to find the early bird got the worm and all of the chokecherries too.

The fruit has a deep tradition among rural people from the Eastern Seaboard to the Great Plains. In fact, the chokecherry is the official fruit of North Dakota, despite the fact that there are virtually no old chokecherry trees anywhere in North Dakota these days. That's because of something called X disease. The uncontrollable pathogen all but wiped out native chokecherry trees in the 1950s and '60s. Young trees were especially vulnerable. The good news is that the chokecherry tree proved resilient and has started to repopulate North Dakota and the Great Plains. The bad news is that scientists in North Dakota have discovered that X disease is back, and this time, it threatens not only the chokecherry trees growing on the plains, it could destroy the species across the continent.

X disease is caused by a cellular pathogen. It infects wild chokecherries, which also act as a reservoir for the disease. Grasshoppers carry the pathogen from wild trees to domesticated ones. The symptoms appear in the first couple of months of spring. Red spots become visible on the new leaves. As the season progresses, so does the disease. By summer, leaves are yellowing and dying. It can take up to two years for the disease to completely defoliate the tree. Experts agree that the only way to contain an outbreak of X disease is to destroy the host.

Growers living in areas not affected by X disease can help to preserve this living piece of Americana by planting several different varieties of chokecherry.

The honest cherry tree

As with many of the fruit trees that have accompanied mankind on the long journey through time, the cherry tree began its voyage in Asia. Historians and horticulturists alike speculate that the cherry tree was helped along the way by migrating birds. The theory is that the birds, after having their fill of cherries, deposited the pits along the migratory route between Asia and Europe. While it may seem like an unglamorous way to move around, it was very effective.

Whether or not birds helped to move the cherry tree from the Asian continent to the European continent is speculation for historians and tale spinners. One thing is for certain, the arrival of the cherry tree on the North American continent was due solely to human effort. When the settlers landed at Plymouth Rock, the hulls of their ships were full with fruit cultivars, including the cherry tree. These cultivars would eventually be crossed with the native, wild variety the settlers found growing around what is now Virginia. The settlers called the native variety bird cherry, and it would soon become the preferred pollinator for the imported cultivators because of its cold-hardiness and resistance to native diseases.

One of America's most treasured pieces of political folklore involves the cherry tree. Everyone knows that America's most famous founding father was honest to a fault, even as a child. The young patriot readily admitted to cutting down the family cherry tree when confronted by his father, or at least that's how the tale is told. In reality, no such incident ever happened. The entire story was made up by Washington's biographer, Mason Locke Weems. The tale first appeared in 1809 in Locke's book The Life of Washington. Mason invented the story to illustrate just how honest George Washington was.

Today, in the metropolis that bears the name of our first president, the cherry is venerated as a symbol of goodwill between two nations. In 1912, Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo gave 3,000 cherry trees to the people of the United States as a gesture of friendship. Every spring, over a million visitors descend on Washington D.C. for The National Cherry Blossom Festival.

Besides their beautiful blooms and historical significance, cherries have a multitude of uses. Cherries contain compounds called anthocyanins which give the fruit its deep red color. Anthocyanins also reduce pain and inflammation. Perhaps that is why cherries were commonly brewed into a tea to treat coughs and congestion. It also explains why cherry is still a popular flavor for cough medicines. Cherries are used in jams and pies, and are a favorite choice of winemakers. Cherry wood is valued by woodworkers and artisans for its smooth texture and aging properties.

Cherry trees are the perfect choice for growers who want to plant a piece of history and tell tales over a piece of warm cherry pie.

And a partridge in a pear tree

Pears have always been lauded for their sweet, smooth, buttery taste and clean aroma. Eaten raw, they are succulent to the point of decadence. They add a distinct richness to sauces, pastries and preserves.

Archeologists have found evidence that Chinese growers were grafting pear trees and experimenting with hybridization techniques as far back as 7,000 years ago. Various cultivars made their way from Asia to the European continent via ancient trade routes. When they finally made their way to Europe, they were in high demand.


The European fascination with the pear is well-documented in English art and verse. The pear became the object of a plethora of still-life fruit portraits in the 17th century. The fruit was further canonized in the 18th century Christmas carol, "The Twelve Days of Christmas." It comes as no great surprise that when the Europeans embarked on their voyage to the New World they brought their cherished pears along, but things didn't go quite as planned.

The settler's attempts to establish pear orchards in the colonies failed. Initially, it seemed as if the imported trees would thrive, but the notion was quickly squashed as blight and disease ravaged the struggling seedlings. Fortunately for American pear lovers, the settlers soon began to move west, taking pear seeds and cultivars with them. The pear varieties that arrived in the Pacific Northwest in the wagons of settlers during the 1800s found a place to thrive. Today, pears are an important crop in both Washington and Oregon.

Pear trees allegedly have interesting health-protecting properties. Pear leaves are a diuretic. A handful of fresh pear leaves steeped for 20 minutes in a quart of boiling water will produce a tea that can be used to treat illnesses like obesity, edema, urinary tract inflammation and dropsy. A decoction made from the bark of a pear tree acts as an analgesic when applied to bruises, sprains and over-used muscles. The fruit itself has properties which lower blood pressure and regulate heart rhythm.

Pear leaves are best when picked in spring. Preserve them for future use by drying. Store the dried leaves whole and grind using a pestle and mortar as needed. The bark for decoctions should be stripped from pruned branches, not from the trunk of a live tree.

Pear trees are an excellent choice for growers who want to harvest fruit, enjoy a cup of healing tea, or paint Victorian-style portraits.

On the move

It's amazing how mobile fruit trees are, especially when you consider they have no biological means of obtaining mobility. They depend on the wanderings and pilgrimages of humans to move from place to place. They are carried by people, along with tales and traditions, to all points on the globe. Today, hundreds of varieties of fruit trees are being grown in the United States. Each variety has a story and contributes to the texture of the historical landscape. Plant a fruit tree and grow some history.


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Title Annotation:The homestead orchard
Author:Cook, Jerri
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2008
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Next Article:Orchards on the ground: fall and winter crops that come in perennial form.

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