Did you know there is an heirloom orchard in Forest Hills? It’s next to Peirce Mill, our restored grist mill on Rock Creek at Beach Drive and Tilden Streets. This orchard is planted with heirloom apples and pears, old varieties that would have been grown in the 19th century when the mill complex was a busy operation.
These apples are similar to the heirloom tomatoes familiar from farmers markets. They provide a lot of different flavors, but are too misshapen or blotchy for today’s consumer. In the last 50 years, scientists have focused on preserving these old apple varieties because in the future they might need the old genes to breed new apples adapted to climate change, a sudden apple disease, or a new commercial need. (A Golden Delicious apple has 57,000 genes; humans have 30,000.)
The above photo shows some of the hundreds of old apple varieties being grown by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (ars.usda.gov) in upstate New York. These apple trees are part of a worldwide network of seed banks and farms that preserve the genes of plants all over the globe.
Why have an orchard at the mill?
Part of the Peirce family business was making and selling cider, hard cider, and apple brandy. Their apple orchard probably stretched along the west bank of Rock Creek. The distillery was in a stone building still standing near the mill at Tilden and Shoemaker streets.
In the 1800s, when the mill was a commercial business, and for two centuries before that, hard cider was the major alcoholic beverage in the U.S. It was cheap, easy to make at home, and safer than water in some places. Many apple trees were grown solely for their cider apples.
At that time, sugar was hard to get and expensive, so apples were also prized for the sweetness they brought, eaten fresh or cooked. (My grandmother had a wormy apple tree in her back yard, so I grew up with homemade applesauce, apple butter, conserve, apple pie, baked apples, etc.)
In the past, farmers and homeowners planted a wide variety of apples, depending on the use they planned. Some kinds were better for eating, others for cooking. Some stored well over winter, some made great cider. Some ripened in August and others in October. Experts have estimated that there were 14,000 varieties of apples grown in the 19th century in the United States. Many are now extinct.
Heritage apples in the new orchard
The trees in the mill’s new orchard are small because they were planted only five years ago. When they mature, the orchard will have 18 old-time apple varieties and six kinds of old pears.
The photo above shows Tim Makepeace, the volunteer in charge of the orchard, with an heirloom tree known as the Harrison apple. The Harrison apple was highly prized for making a rich, sweet cider. The apples are yellow, oddly shaped and often dotted with black spots, but they make great cider.
Another of the trees will produce Calville Blanc d’Hiver, a French apple still grown in France to make calvados brandy. It’s a good eating apple, too. Claude Monet features it in his painting Still Life with Apples and Grapes.
Apples came to America with the settlers
The apple is not native to the Americas. The settlers who founded Jamestown in 1607 and the Pilgrims who landed in Massachusetts in 1620 had trees shipped across the Atlantic shortly after they got established. By the time of the American Revolution, most East Coast landowners had orchards. George Washington’s orchard and Thomas Jefferson’s orchard have now been restored and are open to visitors.
Seeds from the imported trees produced many new American apple varieties, valuable because they often adapted well to local climates and soils. Outstanding apple varieties would spread throughout the original colonies, and pioneers took them over the Appalachians.
Jefferson’s cider apples
One tree in the Peirce Mill orchard is a reminder of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson liked to brag about his cider, which “tasted like champagne.” To get this taste, he blended two apple varieties. For sweetness he used the Roxbury Russet from Massachusetts. For balance and acid tang he used Virginia’s Hewe’s Crabapple.
The trees in the orchard are cloned – that is, the apple variety is grafted onto a rootstock that does well in our area. Apple trees do not reproduce true from seed. If you want to grow a good variety you have to graft a twig from the original onto a hearty rootstock. Several heirloom varieties known to have been grown by the Peirces have been grafted.
This photo shows our orchard tree with two grafts. One graft will eventually grow into a branch that will produce Roxbury Russets, and the other graft will produce the Hewe’s Crabapple. These apples will look and taste very different despite growing on a single rootstock.
The Roxbury Russet was discovered in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1650 on a tree that was growing from seed. It had several virtues. It kept well in the winter, important in a time when root cellars were the only refrigeration. Its other virtue was an unusually high sugar content – one apple had almost 13% sugar that fermented to 6% alcohol.
The Peirce nursery – “20 cents a tree”
The Peirce family had a nursery near the mill. They sold a variety of fruit and landscaping trees and their 1824 catalogue shows 50 varieties of apples, with names like Clear Drinking, Lady Finger, Maiden’s Blush. They also sold pear, cherry, peach, plum and other fruit trees. Small grafted trees cost 20 cents.
Maintaining today’s orchard
The demonstration orchard was planted five years ago on poor soil that had been dumped on the spot during past construction, according to Tim Makepeace, the volunteer in charge. The trees were not thriving.
Makepeace organized a number of work-days to enhance the soil, space the trees correctly, and install a deer fence. To build soil structure and fertility, he is planting cover crops like native clovers, legumes, and buckwheat – changing them spring and fall.
The photo above shows volunteers hard at work in August. They were digging up the soil and turning it over to prepare it for sowing seeds of the fall crop.
Seeds in the cover crop have been carefully selected to improve the soil. They fix nitrogen in the soil, improve the clay structure, or have flowers that attract bees and pollinating insects.
The seeds will sprout, grow through the winter and be cut down in the spring. The dead stalks provide mulch and enrich the soil as they decompose – creating what is known in the gardening world as “green manure.”
Coming up at Peirce Mill: Heritage Day and a cider-tasting
On Saturday, October 14th, the National Park Service and Friends of Peirce Mill will host Heritage Day at the mill, featuring many old-time crafts, and a demonstration of a home cider press. The water wheel will be turning as it did nearly 200 years ago and corn meal will be coming off the grindstone. All ages are welcome at this free event. (See photos and a video of a similar Peirce Mill event in 2014.)
And on Saturday, November 11th, Friends of Peirce Mill is hosting a hard cider tasting for members. And as luck would have it, memberships are available at the event ($25 for individuals, $50 for families). (Read about the 2016 cider tasting.)
Tim Makepeace, the volunteer orchard manager and Wikipedia.com were major sources for this article.