Anyone who has taken a late summer walk along the roads and trails of our small community has surely noticed the hundreds of orchard trees that dot the pastures, meadows, forests and backyards of Point Roberts.
This rich inheritance is a holdover from the agrarian roots of Point Roberts’ early settlers who cleared the forests, drained the land and introduced an entirely new family of plants and animals to the landscape. Of all the fruit trees that were planted, however, apples were and remain the local favorite.
What many residents may not realize is that most of the apple cultivars that were grown in Point Roberts are no longer commercially available to home growers or consumers. Apples are one the most interesting and historically diverse of our cultivated crops and may be an indication of the importance of preserving these orchards for future generations. Critical to the understanding of this biodiversity is the history of apple diversification in North America.
While the common apple is a native of Central Asia, it was brought to North America by immigrants from Europe, where the fruit had thrived in the colder northern climates. Planted from New Brunswick all the way to Georgia, the trees adapted over hundreds of years to a wide variety of climates. As the American frontier expanded westward, so did the range and diversity of apple production.
The secret to apple diversity is rooted in the tree’s biology. When an apple tree is cross-pollinated by another tree, the taste of the fruit does not change. The change occurs in the seeds in the core of the apple. If the seeds are allowed to germinate, the resulting seedling will produce fruit with the characteristics of both parent trees, creating a new variety.
While it is rare to plant apple trees from seeds today, during the early 1800s many frontiersmen like the famous John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) sowed random bags of apple seed across the northeast, creating orchards that would soon be inhabited by homesteaders. Fruit and wood grafts (known as scion wood) from these wild orchards were traded among farmers and westward pioneers, further refining taste and quality and expanding the range of apples across the country. By the late 1800s, homesteaded orchards on the nearby San Juan islands were building Washington state’s reputation as the country's premier apple producer.
The early 1900s, when much of Point Roberts was settled, were the peak of home orchard production in the United States. Every rural family, along with an extensive kitchen garden, planted orchards, often a requirement for homesteading claims. The fruit of these orchards could be eaten fresh, cooked for pies and sauces, or preserved in cider. By the time the homesteaders wrote a petition to then-President Teddy Roosevelt to open Point Roberts to settlement, North American orchards contained more than 20,000 unique varieties of apples.
Apples remain the most popular domestically produced fruit in the U.S., only surpassed in consumption by imported bananas. Unfortunately, there has been a startling decline in the diversity of apple varieties available to consumers and growers in the last half century. Today, more than 90 percent of apples available to consumers come from 11 varieties. This is primarily a result of the loss of agricultural land to suburban development and the specialization pressures of industrial agriculture toward a few varieties that can be produced profitably on a large scale. The good news is that Point Roberts has been largely spared from those developments and many of our heritage orchards remain standing, ripe with fruit.
In order to catalog and preserve these increasingly rare varieties, the Point Roberts Heritage Orchard Project is conducting a survey to locate these historic orchards planted during the first decades of the 20th century.
With increasing public pressure to move toward fresh local food production, these locally adapted varieties can be an important component in rebuilding a healthy and diverse local food system. The goals of the project are to increase public awareness of the importance of biodiversity in our food crops; to locate, identify and revitalize existing orchards; and to propagate a community orchard that preserve local varieties and our local apple heritage. Anyone interested in helping is highly encouraged to email firstname.lastname@example.org