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Disharoon, an old, north Georgia apple thought to have been cultivated by native Americans, came to Lee Calhoun’s orchard  in 1998.

Disharoon, an old, north Georgia apple thought to have been cultivated by native Americans, came to Lee Calhoun’s orchard in 1998.

The apples in Lee Calhoun’s orchard look ultra-modern, planted as they are on Budagovsky 9 rootstock and trained to trellis wires using the European oblique cordon style. But to qualify to be in his orchard, the apple tree has to be old, an heirloom, a variety that isn’t much raised anymore. Moreover, it has to claim a Southern heritage.

Calhoun goes by the name Lee, but his full name is Creighton Lee Calhoun, Jr. That’s how it appears on the jacket cover of his book, Old Southern Apples, first published in 1995 but expanded and revised in a new edition released early this year.

Calhoun doesn’t have quite the academic credentials that horticulturist Spencer Beach had when he wrote The Apples of New York in 1905. What was then a report of the New York Agricultural Experiment Station became, in Calhoun’s words, “the Bible of northern apples.” But Calhoun does have credibility in the world of apple variety conservation, and he believes the South may have a deeper apple heritage than other parts of the United States. Has he written the better Bible?

Old Southern Apples describes nearly 1,800 varieties of apples that originated in the South or were widely grown there. Reproduced in the book’s center are 123 paintings of apples from the USDA’s Pomological Watercolor Collection. Something you learn from the book is that USDA hired artists to paint pictures of apples. Between 1877 and 1940, more than 7,700 paintings were made of American fruit and nuts. The apple paintings show two views of a fruit, one of the whole apple and the other the apple sliced in half, stem to calyx, with the name of the painter and the orchard from which it originated hand lettered on the bottom of the painting.

Most modern apples are adapted to the high-chill areas of U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 5 and 6. That’s even more reason, Lee thinks, to identify and save apples that grow well in zones 7 to 9 and are better suited to growers in warmer areas.

In an interview with Good Fruit Grower, Calhoun made it clear he’s no collector of unnamed wild seedling apples. To get into his book, an apple must be a named variety and be identified as such by the owner of the tree, and then that identify confirmed by further research as much as possible. Some of these are local varieties selected and propagated a hundred years ago by a Southerner who found merit in it.

“You can’t measure a 150-year-old apple with a modern yardstick,” Calhoun said. “Modern breeders are looking for commercial apples that will be successful. To do that, they have to be better fresh-eating apples than the ones already in
the stores.”

Specialty uses

In olden times, apples were chosen for many specialized uses other than fresh eating: they baked well, or made good cider, or stayed white when dried, or stayed crunchy when fried in sausage drippings for breakfast, or could be stored a long time in a cellar. Arkansas Black, for example, is an heirloom that is available for planting today, but no one should try to eat it directly from the tree. It’s hard as a stone and needs to be stored for several months to improve it. So, in collecting old apples, Calhoun wants to know why the apple was considered special and how it was used originally.

His personal favorites include Aunt Rachel and Magnum Bonum, which come from North Carolina; Blacktwig, which comes from Arkansas; and Green River, which comes from Kentucky.

While the South today is a minor apple-producing region, apples were an important food for Southern rural families for 400 years. Such famous apple growers as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson came from south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

American apples were introduced from Europe, usually as seeds, starting with the first colonists in the early 1600s. The best seedlings were propagated, often by digging up root sprouts, but by 1800 or so, nurseries were doing grafting.

Calhoun’s orchard is near Pittsboro, North Carolina, about 100 miles from the mountains of Henderson County, which has a vibrant commercial apple industry. He is a long-time friend of Marvin Owings, the Extension apple agent there. Owings said Calhoun was ahead of his time, searching for antique Southern apples with his passion to save varieties that might otherwise have been lost.

Pittsboro is not apple country, ­Calhoun says. “It’s too hot here, but the summer heat means I don’t have to contend with apple scab or codling moth. On the other hand, fireblight can be devastating.”

Calhoun is 77 years old and in good health except for some knee issues. He received a degree in agronomy from North Carolina State University, joined the Army, and, after 20 years, retired as a lieutenant colonel. He bought a few acres and settled down, after moving 18 times during his Army career and spending seven years overseas. “My wife, my son, and I built our own house and cleared several acres of land—and then started looking for old apples,” he said. “An elderly neighbor remembered some of the old varieties, and I started looking for them.”

For 16 years until seven years ago, he and his wife, Edith, had a small nursery offering Southern antique apples. Now, he enjoys gardening and growing fruit. “I don’t spray much, and I don’t sell the fruit,” he said. “We use them and give them away to neighbors.” Some of his early apples, such as Early Strawberry, are ready to harvest by June 15, and he picks ripe apples as late as November.

Apples in the South

The book has an introduction that discusses the history of apples in the South and then becomes colorfully encyclopedic—describing apples and telling their stories, quoting from letters and sources. The book is divided into two long sections called “available apples” and “extinct apples.” Why write about extinct apples?

“Well, they may not be extinct,” he said. “Perhaps we haven’t found them yet. Since the first edition of the book came out in 1995, we’ve found 36 varieties that were listed as extinct. And I think we’ll find at least a few others.”

Edith died a few months ago. They met as college freshman and were together 58 years. She typed the original manuscript, which Lee wrote in longhand over a period of six years.

Sold out

“The first edition sold out five years ago, and the second is selling quite well,” Calhoun said. It certainly didn’t hurt that the New York Times sent a reporter and photographer to his farm in February to interview him for an article and book review.

Owings, the extension agent, said he found Lee’s book invaluable both for identifying local varieties and in preparing for talks he’s given on antique apples.

“The detailed research he and Edith did to compose these books was amazing. His second book, the revised and expanded edition, is a welcomed addition, since the first edition is out of print.”

The book is published by Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont.