In a not so distant past, before the majority of us bought our food at the grocery store, each and every Autumn people from all walks of life could be found collecting feral apples. Whether for cider, or for eating in a pie, feral apple trees have fed thousands of people for a very long time. While time has passed by, and these trees mostly stand ignored, the fruit they bear is available to anyone with the desire to harvest these unique apples.
Wild or Feral apples are simply any apple tree that has escaped cultivation. This is usually the result of a seed sprouting. While most of the apple trees in orchards are clones, Feral apple trees are genetically unique. Many people today parrot the idea that apple trees should never be planted from seeds, but what they fail to realize is that all of the most amazing cultivars we have today originated with chance seedlings. The famed Granny Smith apple had its origin in a chance seedling in Australia.
The modern domesticated apple (Malus domestica) had its origin in the wild apple trees (Malus sieversii) of what is now southeastern Kazakhstan, in the Tian Shan Mountains. Apple trees display what is known to botanists as "extreme heterozygosity", meaning that the offspring they create varies so much that an orchard planted exclusively from Pink Lady seeds might not result in a single tree making an apple that looks or tastes like a Pink Lady. Instead what you might encounter are thousands of different variations like small and bitter, or soft and purplish-red. And the trees themselves vary in size as well. This genetic variation has led apple trees to be taken all over the world, and where there are cultivated apple trees, there are feral apple trees nearby.
The variation in size and flavor of these fruits means that you will probably have to taste test quite a bit. In any given afternoon while out picking apples I might eat as many as eight apples. I will not lie to you, many of these apples are not great. But the trees that are great make up for the ones that are not. Our family exclusively picks from old abandoned apple trees and wild apple trees. Over the years we have learned which trees make the best apples and we revisit those trees every other year. We visit those trees every other year because apple trees are naturally masting trees, meaning the only produce fruit regularly every other year or occasionally on the third year. That might not sound ideal for harvesting apples every fall, but remember that there are thousands of feral apple trees in Michigan, and these trees are not synchronized in putting out a crop.
While the very word 'feral' implies a negative connotation, I would urge you to push aside your preconceived notions about the bad flavors or the bugginess of feral apples. These trees are not sprayed with pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides and that fact should make you happy. A tree that is left on its own to defend against a disease or bug produces many more healthful phytochemicals than a monocrop of clones that are sprayed because they would die otherwise. Bugs in wild fruit is a common thing, but with apples it is much more obvious. One sees clear evidence of an invader. Most other fruits show no signs of worms. In our household we solve the problem of wormy apples by simply cutting off the bad parts and making a sacrifice to the compost gods. Many feral apples are not wormy at all, you just have to spend some time seeking out these lovely specimens.
Many of the apples that we harvest in the fall are so pretty they could pass for store bought produce. Just because a tree was not sprayed in no way means that the fruit is worthless. On the contrary, I believe wild apples are far more healthful than their cloned brothers and sisters. These trees have to fend for themselves against insects, diseases and even rabbits that can eat all of the bark off of a tree in the winter months. These trees have a resilience that most orchard trees lack.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that most trees planted by settlers were planted from seeds, and that is because buggy or not, apples of all shapes and size can be turned into apple cider. Once the most popular alcoholic beverage in the country. The beauty of cider is that one uses up otherwise ugly fruits that most consumers would pass up. Besides using up fruit that would otherwise rot, making your own cider is a way in which you can move your own dial toward self sufficiency and living more locally. Which is a cause that I believe many readers could get behind. Alcoholic cider, when consumed in moderation (1 drink daily for women, and 2 for men) is yet another way to ingest antioxidants and increase your health.
Apples boast some impressive health benefits. So many in fact that it would be a shame if we missed out on these potent healthful compounds. Eating just one medium fresh (organic) apple with the skin, seeds and flesh provides you with up to 100 million beneficial microbes, 16% of your daily fiber needs, 11% of your Vitamin C, and a host of phytonutrients and antioxidants that include Anthocyanins and Flavanols. Not to mention eating apples helps with the regulation of blood sugar, can decrease blood levels of oxidized LDL cholesterol, and there is some research that shows that eating apples daily can lower your risk of colon cancer.
Knowing the benefits of apples and that feral apples are free for the taking, we should all take strides to eat more of these forgotten fruits. I have been all over Michigan in the Autumn months, and I have seen and picked feral apples in all of these places. I have picked apples outside of Detroit in September, and in the Upper Peninsula in October. I always keep some container in my car for harvesting during the Autumn months, because inevitably I will encounter some tree loaded with delicious fruit. If the trees are on someones private land, I always pay a visit to the door to secure picking rights. Rarely if ever do people say no. Usually I get shock and awe that I would want to pick their apples. Most people assure me that the apples are too wormy to eat, but say that I can take the risk if I desire. The kindness of strangers is always such an appreciated addition to the cool fresh air of the fall.
We harvest hundreds of pounds of these abandonded apples every single fall in our household, and this usually requires some sort of plan for what to do with them, and how to sort them. First of all, the worst looking apples get the bad parts cut off and are sent right to the dehydrator. Dried apples are a wintertime staple in the lunch bags of our children and a constant companion on road trips. The next step up are apples that are going to be made into applesauce. These apples should be fairly decent looking, but there is no need for them to be perfect as they will be cooked. Apples at the next step are the keepers. These apples are kept for fresh eating. With enough vigilance and care one can easily keep feral apples until february in a root cellar or basement. To keep apples this long you must have a weekly or twice weekly cull. This step ensures that the bad apples are removed. And by removed I mean eaten straight away.
Eating locally can be something that you strive for little by little, and adding something so easy to identify as a feral apple into the mix is a very easy step to take. These nutritious fruits can feed you throughout the year and with every meal you can reminisce about the cool air, the beautiful colors of the leaves, and the cozy sweatshirts. Autumn is truly a magical time of the year, and I am not sure that it would be as magical if we were not blessed to have such an amazing fruit to get us through.
If you have interest in learning more about the evolutionary origins of Apples I suggest you check out the book below!