Modern-day Johnny Appleseed searches for rare varieties

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Tom Brown and his apple display at the Mountaineer Folk Festival in Fall Creek Falls State Park, TN. Photo courtesy of Tom Brown.

If ever anyone qualifies for the title of modern day Johnny Appleseed, it's Tom Brown, a retired chemical engineer. He's been scouring Appalachia since the 1990s, searching for and preserving rare apple varieties. He's discovered approximately 1200 varieties and counting at his orchard Heritage Apples and Clemens, North Carolina. He showcases around 700 of them. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

KCRW: Were you always interested in apples?

Tom Brown: I grew up in rural Iredell County, outside of Statesville, North Carolina. We had one apple tree that Mother made pies out of, and we call that a pound apple. We had seven real large unknown apple trees that we made cider out of and many, many years later, was able to identify them as McClain apples. 

After high school, I went to NC State and graduated in pulp and paper and chemical engineering. Then pursued the chemical engineering effort. When I retired several years later, I started looking for all apple varieties. 

My wife and I love farmers markets. Every Saturday, we would go to a farmers market in Winston Salem at the fairgrounds. And there was a gentleman there that sold Heritage apples. And I was just fascinated by all the names, colors, tastes, and shapes. I found out that he had discovered a few of them himself. And I asked him if there were any lost apple varieties in my area. He said there was one Western Forsyth County called a Harper seedling. And I started searching for it. 

Back then, people responded better to newspaper articles than they do now. I approached the Statesville Record & Landmark and asked if they would do an article about my looking for apples. They were very kind to do so because I had no credentials of ever finding a Noble apple. A lot of people responded, and it eventually allowed me to find more varieties.

How do you look for a lost apple? 

When I first started, I would get these newspaper contacts. It's rare that somebody contacts me and says, “I have [found] a rare apple.” But if you follow up with the people and go see their unknown trees – it gives you a portal into that community. Then, you can find out what neighbors have apples. If the person can introduce you to a few people, that really helps. It's not just driving around and looking for old trees, although I have done that and sometimes. I go to local restaurants early in the morning where there's a lot of local guys hanging out and ask him what all varieties they know about. It's really trying to get as many contacts as humanly possible. But it has to be in- person. I know this is the internet era, but all the people that contact me on the internet just want information. I don't know that I have ever found an apple as a result of the internet contacts. You need to show up at somebody's front door.

Many people have never tried anything other than the most common varieties of apples in their grocery stores. What are some of these rare apples? 

First of all, apples had a wide range of uses. They're not just like the ones that you buy in the grocery store that you eat fresh, or cut up for salads. People made hard cider out of them, and they're made with vinegar and used for livestock feed, and people made pies, and dried fruit. Apples vary tremendously in size. Some of them can be up to like five inches across, and others are the size of a ping pong ball. There’s an apple that's a dark, black, red color, and elongated and sharply pointed. A lot of these are named after people. One of the most unusually-named apples I found was called Bug Horn. And that apple actually made it into some of the old literature. So it wasn’t just one apple, one farmer named.

Give me an example of a specific apple that you looked for for a while that you finally found that felt particularly like you were like the greatest detective ever.

One of them was the Yellow Winesap. It was mentioned very widely – near Brasstown North Carolina, and that's way in the tip of the state. I went to an old orchard there and I couldn't find a tree. Somehow I had gotten in touch with a gentleman in Virginia, and he told me about some old apples on a little road called Cuss and Holler. (Apparently, there was a mountaineer whose home was up on top of the mountain and he frequently cussed very long and loud). There were several apple trees up there, and I got apples off one of them. Big, beautiful yellow apples. I showed it to another gentleman locally,  and he said that it was the Yellow Winesap.

Your goal isn't just to find apples, it's to preserve them. Have you created an orchard where you live where all of these grafts that you've taken from these apples live?

Yes, but not every single one. I've generously shared with others. When I was most actively finding the apples, I would actually get real samples of apples and mail them to other people that sold apple trees. At that time, I wasn't selling apple trees to major preservation orchards. I would send them free cuttings. I mailed all the apples and the cuttings at my expense. Now, there are many hundreds out there that I shared with others. I'm trying to save as many as humanly possible.

Many people may not realize that you can't just plant apples from seeds, because they're so bio diverse. The seeds may create a tree that has nothing to do with the tree that that particular apple came off of. Can you explain apple genetics, and the root stock that you use as the base for grafting these varieties that you find?

Apples are cross pollinated, just like humans are. And so anything that grows from seed, with some rare exceptions, is a different variety. Then, these other pollinators come in and pollinate the blossoms. If an apple grows and falls to the ground, and a tree grows from seed, it's a different variety. That's how there are thousands of apple varieties.

Johnny Appleseed grew apples from seed, and he'd go back to his original Pennsylvania area and collect apple seeds, and then take them to the frontier and grow apple trees, and sell them to the homesteaders. But there's one exemption near Independence, Virginia; I found an apple that supposedly grows true from seed. And so what I'm doing is saving a bunch of seeds this year from that apple variety. I'm going to those people in the past that have asked me for seeds – not knowing that they don't reproduce true from seed – but I'm going offer seeds to a bunch of those people to see if it's the same as if it does produce true from seed.

Do you have a successor for your orchard Heritage Apples? Is there someone who is following what you do?

No, not exactly. What I'm trying to do is to get my operation to a good business status so that someone wants to take it over someday and continue operating it as a business. Also, I’d like to try to get five trees of each kind of apple out there. You know, through my own sales, at least it would keep them going for another generation.

Tom Brown in his orchard with an Improved Queen apple tree.  Photo by his wife Merrikay Brown.