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The crab apple is just fine but the apple reigns supreme in our early history
The McIntosh apple is Canada's national apple; eat it!
The striking display that is the crab apple tree in full flower is one of the glories of May. It’s enough to make you want to plant one.
But wait, not so fast.
Crabs, as they are unfortunately yet affectionately called, and apples for that matter, can be subject to some pretty unsightly diseases — fireblight, apple scab, cedar apple rust — some of these diseases will weaken them, often making them hospitable for further damage by pests, or worst case scenario, kill them.
So, I ask you — is it still worthwhile to grow them?
In the spring, before any hint of buds appear, the shape of a mature crab apple — which is just the wild version of an apple, before it was hybridized thousands of years ago in Central Asia, to make bigger and sweeter fruit — can be a joy to behold. That is, if it has been well pruned and kept healthy.
But really, it is the apple that entrances me ever since I first walked along an abandoned road and cow pasture in Ottawa’s south end where ancient trees still hang on.
Old apple trees are vestiges of our past, planted by farmers and early settlers to provide fruit that could be stored cold or dried and eaten in the winter. But more commonly, apples were used to make cider, which was the preferred do-it-yourself drink of the time.
The first apple tree seeds were brought to our Canadian shores at Habitation at Port-Royal (Port Royal, in Annapolis County, Nova Scotia) in the early 17th century by French settlers. Trees were planted by seed, often with unpredictable results, but it was the fastest way to claim land. The skill of grafting was something that Canadian pioneers learned in the 1800s and by doing that, it was possible to create clones of apples that had particular qualities, thereby making apple growing much more predictable and lucrative.
Perhaps Canada’s most well-known apple was discovered by William McIntosh, the son of a Scottish immigrant to New York, after he settled in Dundela, just 100 miles south of Ottawa, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence river. McIntosh recognized that this was a good eating apple, likely also that it made a tasty and sweet cider, and propagated it from seed to sell to other settlers around 1820. But of course seed grown apples are not true to their parent, so the progeny were disappointing and his buyers were likely pissed off and asked for their money back. It wasn’t until 1835 that McIntosh’s sons learned the grafting process and were able to make carbon copies of the original tree and therefore, put their father back into production, saving the family name. It became known as the ‘McIntosh Red’ and went into commercial production in 1870.
The original McIntosh apple tree lived on for almost 100 years, finally dying in 1910, a death perhaps accelerated by fire damage it had sustained sixteen years earlier. Today a plaque can be found near where it once stood. In 2011, the last surviving grafted McIntosh tree from the original died, after living 150 years on Samuel Smyth’s farm in what is now Iroquois, Ontario. But before it was cut down, cuttings were taken and brought to Upper Canada Village where the horticulturist Brian Henderson (my old professor from the horticulture program at Algonquin College who absolutely loved trees and greenhouse growing) said they would be grown on in their own orchard. If you visit Smyth’s Apple Orchard today, you will find twenty seven varieties of apples but you know the favourite is still McIntosh.
The home of the McIntosh apple, a farmhouse sitting on 5.5 hectares (13.5 acres) of orchard and farmland southeast of Ottawa, was on the market in 2018 after the owner of 31 years moved away and let it fall into disrepair. I don’t know if there was a buyer or what has happened to the property today, but I am going to take a road trip to find out and will let you know.
My own dear old Dad, who was a lover of Canadian local history, always asked me to bring him McIntosh apples when I went out shopping for him and my Mom. And now I know why. He wanted to help keep this historic Canadian apple alive. I intend to do the same.