The Garden Gate: It’s apple season all around the world

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By Ellen Probert Williamson
It is almost automatic to think of apples and cider when the crisp days of fall arrive, but how about pears and perry?

Perry is pear cider, and very good it is.

Pears have a venerable history which goes back for about 40 centuries.

Originating in western Asia and around the Caspian Sea, they have been known for many centuries in Europe for as far back as the Stone Age.

Homer, writing in Greece about 580 B.C., calls this fruit “the gift of the gods” and lists pears among the fruits in his own garden.

Some centuries later, Theophrastus, Plato and Pliny all recorded many varieties of pears and give lengthy descriptions of methods of grafting and pruning as early as 200 B.C.

Nicholas Hardenpont, a priest in Belgium, referred to pears as “butter-fruit” in the early 18th century. Since that time, more than 5,000 varieties have been listed. Some of them occur worldwide, some in just one country or another, and some in just one region of one country.

Pear seeds are known to have been sent to the Massachusetts colony in early America in March 1620. By 1771, the Prince Nursery, the most prominent in the colonies, listed 42 varieties of pears.

Fireblight, the worst enemy of pear trees, was first described in 1780. It continues to be a menace to this day, though it can now be controlled by the use of the antibiotic streptomycin.

Pears contain large amounts of vitamins A, B and C and a considerable amount of iodine, which is necessary for the proper functioning of the thyroid gland. For centuries beautiful skin and shiny hair have been attributed to eating pears. What a pleasant way to acquire beauty!

Blackberries, so compatible with pear and apple trees, became popular about 1840 when a variety of pear named the Dorchester was exhibited by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

Blackberries are called brambleberries in England, and the nursery rhyme about the man who jumped into a bramblebush and scratched out both his eyes refers to the many thorns that even the most carefully cultivated blackberry bushes have.

Ever since Adam and Eve, people have been eating apples. The cultivation of apples dates back to before the Stone Age. Countless varieties have been developed over the centuries, and cookbooks without number have printed recipes using this delectable fruit in hundreds of ways.

After the lumbering years were over in Michigan, growing apples became a major industry. Michigan now produces millions of bushels of apples annually, in addition to vast quantities of cherries and peaches.

The production of apples and other fruits has increased steadily since 1841. By 1870, apple orchards in Michigan covered more than 250,000 acres.

The legendary character Johnny Appleseed, whose real name was John Chapman, planted acres of apple trees in the Ohio Valley and distributed apple tree seedlings to the Indians. He is generally credited with being the founder of southwestern Michigan’s extensive fruit culture.

Many apple orchards are in all the northern states. As a result, many cider mills are in the surrounding countryside. All attract many thousands of people annually who will pick countless bushels of apples and drink thousands of gallons of apple and pear ciders before the season ends.

There is something about the spectacle of water wheels, cider presses and the pervading scent of apples adding a tang to the air. All symbolize the fall season and are as much an attraction as the many color tours to admire the brilliant fall foliage.

In Ramses III’s time in Egypt’s 12th century, apple trees were cultivated in the Nile valley. In the Roman world of the 4th century, 37 varieties of apples were recorded and listed by name in the writings of Cato and Pliny.

Several thousand varieties exist today. They are generally classified on the basis of their time of maturation (summer, fall or winter), their color, size and degree of tartness.

An interest has revived in so-called antique kinds of apples, like Northern Spy, Golden Transparent, Snow and Winesap.

Apples are used in so many ways as food, and to make cider, applejack calvados and vinegar. There is really a basis of trust in the adage, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” as apples are an ingredient in many remedies and nutritional supplements.

In the 18th century, pomanders made of apples were a popular fashion accessory. They were used to repel moths and to scent rooms. Pomanders were also made of ivory, silver or gold in apple shapes and pierced to release the scent of the spices and perfumes they contained.

Even earlier they were the badge of the physician, and to carry one was thought to protect the bearer from infection and contagion.

In Emily Holt’s delightful 1911 book, “The Complete Housekeeper,” she says, “Plants are very human, especially in their sympathies and antithesis. Thus it happens that blackberry or bramblebushes do their best next to orchard trees, even dwarf trees, than do any others among the small fruits. One has the feeling that the apple and pear trees in the orchard have an almost parental relationship with the small fruits in the vicinity.”

Apples have even become part of our everyday speech. We say “the apple of his eye,” “an apple for the teacher” and “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

Apples and pears are filled with vitamins, carbohydrates and fiber, and are a basic food all over the world.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.