It is unclear whether Sir Isaac Newton really did discover gravity by having an apple fall on his head. Current scholarship has it that he may have observed an apple falling in his mother’s garden from a distance, causing him to question why apples always fell perpendicularly to the Earth, and that this led to his belief that the gravitational pull of a mass such as the Earth was centered at its core. Regardless of the veracity of this story, after a weekend that took me from Charlottesville and Monticello to Longwood Garden in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, I cared less about gravitational pull and was much more curious about what variety of apple Newton observed — and what its flavor profile was. It is thought that Newton’s apple was a cooking variety known as the ‘Flower of Kent,’ as such a variety still grows in view of his bedroom window at his ancestral home. From this tree, Newton may have discovered gravity, but had I been in his place, judging from the traits of ‘Flower of Kent,” I think I would have discovered apple butter instead.
Apples were on my mind, not only as I walked about the orchard at Monticello on Saturday, but also on Sunday when I attended a meeting at Longwood Garden for the Food Forever initiative of the Crop Trust, an international organization focused on maintaining the biodiversity of our food system and increasing global awareness of the importance of this at-risk asset. With this in mind, the Crop Trust gave me and the other conference attendees a quick lesson in biodiversity using one of the current season’s best examples of why we celebrate the breadth of a species: the apple. Cary Fowler, whose work with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and whose writings on biodiversity helped define the movement for genetic preservation of our food crops, was kind enough to bring along for a tasting some of his favorite apples from his orchard. The apples were beautiful, the company was superb and the lessons for choosing the right apple for one’s own garden were unforgettable. As Cary took us through the apples he brought with him, he not only commented on the flavor profile and eating purpose of each of the varieties, but he made a larger argument for biodiversity that was beyond the pleasures of the palette, sharing with us the other inherent traits that made each of these varieties unique and important.
From disease resistance to cold and heat tolerance, Cary walked us through his artful arrangement of apples, sharing why one apple was ideal for setting fruit in the south, another for the shores of the Hudson River, or a third for the colder reaches of zone 4. Biodiversity meant not only that we could have a full range of taste at our fingertips, but also that we could have apples selected to grow well where we live, as well as a few that were not meant for us. One such apple, ‘Esopus Spitzenberg,’ was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite, but it was not well suited to the Virginia climate. However, it grew perfectly for Cary at his garden in Rhinebeck, New York, just across the river from the variety’s namesake hometown on the Hudson. And as Cary walked us through apples that were good keepers and others that were ideal for cider making, he brought to life the most important decision-making factor that we know as gardeners but often lose sight of when we get fixated on having what we want: that there is a right plant for the right place. Apple varieties were selected over the years for traits relating to where they prosper as well as for their taste, and while we might covet a particular apple or dream of cultivating it even though we know it will not grow well for us where we live, we must learn to make good decisions about what we grow where.
We can also connect ourselves to stewarding the varieties we cannot grow, by supporting their being grown where they will prosper. ‘Esopus Spitzenberg’ does not need to be, and indeed cannot be, grown at Monticello, but it does not mean that Jefferson, or any of us, cannot work hard to make sure the varieties we love are thriving in their rightful home. Cary ended with a note about an apple thought long lost that was beloved by his personal hero and mine, Charles Darwin (though I have an admitted fondness for Darwin’s contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace, too). Cary managed to locate the variety and to graft some scion wood onto the rootstock and is now growing it in his own garden (I will leave the recounting of the amazing story of locating this variety to Cary, who told it so well and to whom it belongs). And from Cary and Darwin, I took away one lesson: learning to adapt is essential to humans and to the plants that inhabit the world that surrounds us.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.