If Americans were to rank their favorite holidays, Johnny Appleseed Day probably wouldn’t score much higher than International Talk Like A Pirate Day or National Butterscotch Pudding Day.
That’s a shame. Although the holiday doesn’t come with the typical perks – days off from work, themed merchandise, or festivals – it can be a fun opportunity for plant lovers to celebrate the man who helped make the modern American apple possible.
In honor of this famous apple lover, Mercer Botanic Gardens invites the public to celebrate Johnny Appleseed Day with apple-themed books, crafts, and games on Thursday, Sept. 26, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Learn more about why this famous apple planter is worth celebrating, below.
Legend has it that this larger-than-life frontiersman trekked barefoot across the country planting apple trees. Even today, he remains a popular American folk hero immortalized in poems, children’s stories, and the 1948 Disney classic, The Legend of Johnny Appleseed.
Unfortunately, these stories often leave out one of Appleseed’s most lasting accomplishments. Horticulturists now believe his use of apple seeds contributed to the variety of apples available in grocery stores today.
Before adopting his famous moniker, Appleseed was known as John Chapman, a professional orchardist who established apple nurseries from seeds from Pennsylvania to Illinois in the early 1800s.
Unlike the character portrayed in the Disney film, Appleseed was an innovative businessman, although his willingness to forgive debts prevented him from accruing any wealth. After establishing his nurseries, he erected fences around the seedlings to protect them from wildlife and left the trees to mature on their own or under the care of neighbors, wrote William D’Arcy Haley in an 1871 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine article. Haley noted that Appleseed chose the locations of his nurseries carefully, almost always selecting fertile areas destined to become pioneer settlements.
Years later, he would return to sell the young saplings to settlers. It was a brilliant business plan, but historical accounts show Appleseed was as willing to trade his trees for rags as he was to sell them for cash. By the end of his life, Appleseed had planted orchards over more than 100,000 square miles and sealed his fate as an American legend.
Appleseed also chose to peddle apples greatly in demand by settlers. Apples could be eaten fresh, made into pies, dried, or pressed into apple butter and juice. But more importantly, apples could be used to make cider, a drink often more popular than water. Because of poor sanitation, the beverage was safer to drink than water, which could contain dangerous bacteria.
Cider apple seeds were also easy to collect in bulk, although the apples they produced were often bitter and sour. Because of the high demand for cider, Pennsylvania was full of cider presses. Not one to be wasteful, Appleseed regularly traveled to Pennsylvania to collect discarded apple seeds. As a result, the apple trees that he planted didn’t produce palatable apples, although they were ideal for making cider and applejack.
Promoting Apple Diversity
Like many fruits and vegetables, apples have changed greatly over the centuries. Because apple trees depend on pollination to reproduce, their seeds are not true to the parent plant. Each apple seed will produce a unique sapling with characteristics of the male and female apple tree. Because of these differences, the apples of today have evolved to be much different than the bitter apples settlers brought from Europe in the 17th century.
In The Botany of Desire, journalist Michael Pollan wrote that Appleseed’s reliance on seeds helped create the hardy American apple and other varieties, like the Delicious and Golden Delicious apples. By planting seeds, Appleseed created hundreds of thousands of unique apple trees that led to apple varieties still produced today.
“It was the seeds, and the cider, that [gave] the apple the opportunity to discover by trial and error the precise combination of traits required to prosper in the New World,” Pollan wrote.
Today, more than 10,000 varieties of apples are grown around the world, and new varieties are still being discovered.
So next time you bite into a delicious apple, thank Johnny Appleseed, and then plant an apple seed. You never know what type of apple you’ll get! Although the fruit may be inedible to humans, animals won’t care how sour your fruit tastes. Who knows, you may even get lucky and produce a tasty new apple variety.