An apple today 

Arkansas should make the “Black” official.

click to enlarge 'BLACK' APPLE: Should it be state's official?
  • 'BLACK' APPLE: Should it be state's official?

Fall is upon us, and it is time to think of apples.

In 1919 Arkansas raised five and a half million bushels of apples; now that figure stands at about 67,000 bushels. One way to reverse this decline is to have an official state apple, and one particular apple at that, the Arkansas Black.

The state that ranks eighth in obesity needs a state apple far more than it needs a state fish or a state bacon. Properly done this action could set in motion a brighter future for orchardists, retailers, restaurants, consumers, tourists, agri-tourism, and state pride. Urgency is required. Today China raises 1.4 billion bushels of apples, seven times that of the United States and one-half of the world's supply. While Chinese apples are rated as too toxic to enter America, their apple juice appears in virtually every supermarket brand. American orchardists worry that China apples will drive them out of business, a fate that has already overtaken American garlic producers. Growing and eating our own apples is one response to the Chinese threat to take over America.

Apples are not native to the Americas but formed a major component in what is called the Colombian Exchange — America's plants to Europe, and European plants to the Americas. In 1634 Lord Baltimore, the founder of Maryland, ordered apples, especially “Pipins, Pearmans and Deesons.” George Washington ordered trees from England but by 1800 local nurseries began to fill the void.

In early 20th century Arkansas some 75 percent of the apples in Washington and Benton counties were the Ben Davis or its near cousins. (The popular but tasteless Ben Davis inspired jokes. In one story, a blindfolded expert identified correctly every apple he was given. Finally, his challenger supplied a piece of cork. The export thought it must be a Ben Davis, but if it was, “it's the best tasting Ben Davis I've ever eaten.”)

A large number of apples carried the name “Horse,” indicating that other animals shared an interest in the fruit. “I find more old trees of the Horse than any other variety,” Southern apple historian Creighton Lee Calhoun Jr. observed.

Most eating apples have to mature after being picked before reaching full flavor. In an age before refrigerators, apples were preserved for the winter in several ways: by drying (home evaporators were universal), making them into cider, vinegar, and apple butter, or storing them in root cellars for future use. The Arkansas black was a good keeper that could hold its flavor for months. 

In the 19th century apple cross-pollination and genetic mutation resulted in a Darwinian host of varieties. In his 1995 book “Old Southern Apples,” historian Calhoun describes about 1,600 varieties that were grown or originated in the South. Arkansas's 50 varieties included 12 that carried the name “Arkansas,” the most unusual being one named Arkansas Baptist.

John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed,” 1774-1845), who established nurseries in the Midwest, apparently never visited Arkansas.

In Arkansas the first recorded nursery was in 1827 and the first man to describe himself in the census as a nurseryman was Jacob M.J. Smith, who in 1836 located north of Fayetteville. The first large orchard in Benton County was reportedly set out by a Cherokee woman in 1840.

The Shannon Pippin appeared on Granville D. Shannon's orchard near Boonsboro in Washington County between 1833 and 1843. One Shannon exhibited in Fayetteville in 1869 weighed 27 ounces, and the apple won more premiums at the New Orleans Exposition in 1884 than any other Southern apple.



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