The Apple: An American Icon

Learn all about the fruit behind some of the nation’s signature culinary offerings, from apple cider to apple pie

Photo Modified: Flickr/Ben Garney/CC 4.0

Apples first landed in Virginia.

Americans have an insatiable appetite for the apple, a tasty immigrant fruit that’s now an iconic symbol of patriotism and the American pioneering spirit. Centuries of hard work in the orchard have made the apple a favorite fruit, and each year, on average, each American consumes 16 pounds of fresh apples and 22.3 pounds of apple juice and cider.

Apples are a central figure in our collective psyche, history, culture, folkways, and the vernacular so is it any wonder this iconic fruit an essential part of our diet? What’s ironic is the inedible crabapple is the only apple native to North America, which begs the question, how did apples get here and why are we so fiercely devoted to them?

Plant a Fruit Tree and Save a New Nation
Our fondness for Malus domestica goes back five centuries and can be traced to the English settlement in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. When Captain John Smith arrived with the first European settlers, they brought with them seeds and cuttings from England’s best fruit trees in anticipation of a meager start in a wild and untamed new world. The settlers quickly discovered the only wild indigenous fruits available were crabapples, pawpaws, cherries, mulberries, and persimmons, but fortunately, the soil was fertile and many of the English apple trees survived or thrived.

Within a few short years the transplants successfully bore fruit and American settlers became adept orchardists with a wide variety of apple trees for eating, cooking, and making cider. In 1629, John Smith noted that peaches, apples, apricots, and figs "prosper[ed] exceedingly" in the colony, and by 1642 fruit trees from Europe were so successful William Berkley, the first governor of Virginia, had a thriving orchard of more than 1,500 trees at his Green Spring estate. What history teachers don’t teach you in school is that most of the apple trees, and many of the peach and pear trees, were planted solely for the production of cider, perry, and brandy.

From Seed to Orchard
As the colonies grew and other settlers arrived from Holland, England, and Germany, they planted apple seeds up and down the East Coast and every citizen with access to a plot of land, garden, or patch of green planted apple trees for their own use or sold the excess at market. However, they did so with varying degrees of success thanks to harsh North American winters, humidity, and native pests.

In addition, Johnny Appleseed, aka John Chapman, myths to the contrary successful apple cultivation from seed is never a sure thing and finding the right variety for each region involves much more than dropping seeds into the ground and waiting for a tree to sprout. That’s because most apple varieties grown from seed produce inferior fruit, or what are called “spitters,” and as a result, sheer volume and luck helped establish many of the heirloom and antique varieties still popular today.

While apple pie may be an American classic, apples trees were not, in general, planted for apples that could used for baking, cooking, and eating , the primary motivation for planting apple trees was to make the colonists most popular drink—hard cider. The cuttings the British and Dutch brought with them were from cider varieties used for centuries in Europe and since drinking water wasn’t always safe, everyone, young and old drank hard cider with every meal.

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The Golden Age of Apples
By the 1800s, grafting methods and techniques had improved immensely and orchardists, including Johnny Appleseed, preferred this method for cultivating apples because “Apples are a deciduous tree that is a member of the rose family, and like roses, the best way to grow and propagate them is by grafting the chosen apple variety onto root stock.” This improvement led to what pomologists call the Golden Age of Apples. It began during Thomas Jefferson’s era and ended in the 20th century and provided American consumers access to more than 17,000 varieties of apples (which were definitively cataloged in 1905 when the United States Department of Agriculture published a bulletin by staff pomologist W.H. Ragan entitled Nomenclature of the Apple: A Catalog of the Known Varieties Referred to in American Publications from 1804 to 1904) that spanned the seasons, offered a rainbow of colors and textures, included a vast array of flavors and aromas, and included apple varieties that could be used to cook, eat raw, store, feed livestock, and make exceptional cider.