Notable Documents: Historic Orchards

July 1, 2010

Although Keats called autumn the season of mellow fruitfulness, these days you can find just about any fruit at any time, thanks to modern agriculture and international trade. It was not always so, though. Fruitful Legacy: A Historic Context of Orchards in the United States, a Library Journal 2009 Notable Government Document, reveals the surprisingly complex history of fruit trees in the United States. In colonial times, the trees tended to be tall and grown from seed. The resultant fruit was not particularly tasty because apples and other tree fruits were grown for cider and animal feed, not to be eaten raw by humans. So-called garden orchards, tended behind walls by the well-to-do, were the main sources for “eating fruit”, and if a particular variety was out of season, our forebearers were out of luck.

Grafting and other techniques eventually produced larger and more productive orchards. These days, trees are bred to be dwarfs, which explains why older engravings show kids tossing down apples or pears from high up in trees, while today’s apple pickers are about as tall as the trees they pick from.

Aside from lots of information on the continuing evolution of America’s orchards, this book from the National Park Service’s Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation also addresses the surprisingly numerous heritage orchards and individual trees that are, or are eligible to become, entries in the National Register of Historic Places. Some of these are reserves for the germplasm of fruit varieties that otherwise would be lost to us, while others preserve the way orchards and fruit trees were planted and used throughout our history.

Fruitful Legacy provides a bonus: a selection of gorgeous botanical drawings of classic American fruits, as well as photos of fruit trees and fruit tree stands in national parks and monuments.

I found Fruitful Legacy to be a surprisingly interesting read, a generator of ideas for trips to parks (the Moses Cone Memorial Park, part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, sounds intriguing and not impossibly far from where I live), and a visual treat. You can browse it here, get a copy here, and find it in a library near you here. Now, should I have an apple or a pear with lunch?

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