TLDR as they say. But the ‘executive summary’ is I’ve been enjoying many healthy wild & feral apples in my region, am amazed by their qualities, and might try a little study to better learn their mystery next year.
The end. Besides, I don’t want the UP to get ‘famous’.
What, still reading? OK, I’ll spill the apples.
Because my fruit mania of the last few years which reached new heights 2023 because of more planting & of a lot of reading (plus a weird super-flu I had in the spring that left me constantly craving all sorts of fruit to the abandonment of potato chips & beer; a survivable malady I admit!), I really got into sampling wild apples this year.
So I figured I’d post a little bit about my sampling the wild & feral apples in the eastern Upper Peninsula (EUP) this year, since:
a) I’m not sure if this year’s healthy bounty is normal here or for a wider area,
2) I am dazzled at the abundance,
III) I’d like to hear how other areas are this year, and
#) if this year is exceptional I ought to get my hopes down for buggy squishy sour little lumps of a normal harvest.
I work for the USFS & do a lot of driving around the area for this and just getting to places for errands (I live in a small village & the only ‘big city’ within 100 miles is Sault Ste. Marie, pop. 13,000). Half the land in the UP is national or state forest or commercial forestry land or various woodland tracts (with a few old farms). Here’s a semi-functional gis map that might help if you want to see the geography a little: https://euprpdc.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=01049e08b82349a0aee9d789446ad7fd
I keep an eye for apple trees (there are many) & stop now & then on my travels to sample and/or collect (I’ve got about a bushel or so of various ones in a cooler from the last week or so). I also get to come across some pretty out of the way ones, like single tall trees weaving their way upward in the shady forest leaning out along forest roads (shaped just like John Bunker says in his book) or long-forgotten town or orchard sites. There are wild apples here & there all over, though I haven’t seen any in the bogs or fens, yet…
Most of what I see seem to be fencerow or roadside seedlings best I can tell (~ 85-95%?), though some are probably feral old plantings, and sometimes possibly rootstock ‘replacement’ after the original tree’s long gone (yesterday I saw a ring of trunks around the spot where a grafted tree used to be in a long-gone railroad village). I can rarely identify graft lines, but spacing & pattern, trunk configuration, etc. are my main clues telling me that few were cultivated. I hope to refer to some of the old aerial photos back to the 30s or so this winter to deduce some & find new areas to look next year for old cultivars.
This area has been ‘settled’ really only since the ~1880s though Sault Ste Marie & St. Ignace were both founded in the 1600s. Most farming (what little there was/is) is only since ~1890 or so. There seems to be, and to have been, more apples north and east of St.Ignace (Straits of Mackinac), east toward Detour & north toward Sault Ste. Marie; much of that area is on the Niagara escarpment & has calcareous bedrock & soils. Most of the farming in this area has been hay & pasturing.
Last few weeks I’ve been driving some in the area between Newberry (toward lake Superior) and Engadine (near Lake Michigan), and have been amazed at the apples there. This area is mostly sandy glacial soil & there’s some cattle farming plus some old orchards & crop fields in the southern area. There are a few Amish in this area too;they like the farming. It’s still more than 50% woods though. But there are hundreds of heavily-laden apple trees of all sizes and colors along the road (so long as your colors are red, green, & yellow; haven’t seen a single russet anywhere in the EUP).
Anyway, the thing that’s astonished me this year - sampling so many more apples than previously - is how most apples on most trees are 100% pest, scab, etc. free. There are a few trees in a very few spots where I find some apples that have some sort of bug damage, but most trees and most apples have none (until they get old & squishy that is). I have a foggy memory that before my apple mania most wild apples were small, buggy, and hard. Has this been a once in a generation apple year here, or have I not been paying attention? I remember once about 15 years ago after living years in Alaska (hardly the land of fresh apples) I was bicycle touring down here & stopped & ate an apple off a tree (that I have mapped but haven’t made it to this year) & it hit me that I’d forgotten what an apple tasted like.
Maybe reading aboot all the vexations awaiting my home planted apples & the vast efforts needed to protect them made me paranoid. The first thing I thought back in July when I was eating the ignored but perfect yellow transparents (I think) off the tree in my neighbor’s yard is that if I have even a bit of that luck on my own trees 30m away I’d be thankful & happy. All those potential cucurlios, moths, fireblights, knots of various type, etc. lurking out there, I assumed, would reduce anything not sprayed with this or that oil, powder, ‘friendly microbes’, 'cide, or whatnot to little cinders of scar and frass but - maybe - there’s hope!
That same bug-free state seems to have been the case on almost every tree I’ve come across since. Perhaps it was the weather - April & May were fairly wet as I recall, then June & July very dry, & after that more or less normal but a slightly drier autumn thus far. The summer’s temperatures were about average (not extra hot) this year. We’re moderated by the surrounding three Great Lakes so it’s not such a Continental climate (DFb, 5a/4b - for comparison the famous fruit & wine areas along Lake Michigan in the lower peninsula are zone 6a or even 6b)
The other thing that’s surprised me now that I’ve tried maybe 35 or 75 different trees is how many are really good - I spit maybe 25% out, finish the rest, say ‘wow this is good’ for maybe 25 or 40%, and have about 5 or 6 I absolutely love and make repeat visits to & hope to graft (with the diminishing space left on my 70x130’ village lot). And some that were hard and astringent on first visit became fantastic a few weeks or a month later. All this is all based on just eating them at the tree or maybe keeping them a week or two & then eating them - I don’t know how I’d identify those good for cider, baking, or after months of storage, etc. without going through the rigmarole on each one. Maybe I’m more like 99% good apples if I’d only have the patience!
Lately I’ve been wondering how ‘bad’ Ben Davis really is in the north and if I’m liking apples that are just as ‘bad’ just because I’ve got the mania and they’re wild & free to eat (which adds a lot to their quality of course!). One of my top favorites is a tall seedling growing alone (no other apples that is) on a narrow dirt road in pretty much full shade. More green than yellow or red but very juicy and ‘appley’ & moderately sour but I always taste the sweetness a few minutes after I eat it. ‘Complex’ it might be.
I like the sweet ones, I like the sour ones, I like the weird ones, I like the appley ones. Most days my teeth are squeaky from the many variations of astringency. Some days I buy a pasty on the way home to ‘lubricate’ my squeaky teeth (a good Cornish or UP pasty is just right for this), but more often than not I’m too full of apples to be hungry!
Another thing I like is they’re mostly a reasonable size - I may talk (or type) too much, but I’m not a bigmouth, and unlike a snake I can’t unhook my jaw to eat some over-sized block of concrete like the store-bought apples (& a few big wild non-concrete) that are just too big to eat conveniently. Another one of my favorites is a 1.5-2" crab with partly red insides; I like all the small ones, fun to eat. I always look for a little one to test at the tree so I’m not wasting too much because I’m sharing with my animal friends.
I’m amazed at the variety of scents & flavors (I’ve tasted ‘apple’ of course, but also sweet corn, champagne, bourbon, watermelon, and a bunch of others including one (another favorite) that I can’t quite identify; very fruity, maybe plum or strawberry (this flavor I’ve found on two very widely-spaced trees so maybe they’re related).
Since I don’t get to any fancy markets in big cities or diverse orchard areas, I don’t have much chance to get apple variety, so the exceedingly wide diversity of wild apples is a great pleasure and revelation to me.
All this appeals to the cheapskate and gourmand in me; but I’m also saddened and maddened that these apples are pretty much entirely ignored by everyone (humans that is) whether it’s growing 2m outside their door (there are a lot of old backyard apple trees all over the UP), in the old field across the road, or in the woods. The most recognition of these tons and tons of amazing free fruit is some people gathering fallen ones to use as deer bait (usually carried by hand no more than a few feet to and from the ORV - don’t get me started on that!).
The blueberries, Saskatoons, cranberries, etc. etc. are all great in the UP, but these apples - they’re everywhere and 100x or more the volume of fruit of all others combined, wow!
So I’m off to a start on exploring these, mapping favorites, and reveling in this heavenly cornucopia. I photograph the dickens out of my favorites, probably most useful for winter dreaming but maybe useful for future year comparisons too. I even joined Nafex, not because I can do much serious fruit mystery-solving or growing, but the zoom presentations and Pomona back issues are well worth the $19 for education.
I haven’t tried much to identify the apples, mainly because most are probably seedlings, though I might try to learn a bit more before the 2024 season. Maybe I’ll read over some old MI ag & orchard reports offa archive (something apparently not bothered by the lousy ‘authors’ slandered below) & look on old aerials for orchards try to get a sense of what apples to think about for identification next year. There’s not nearly as much historical record here compared to New England (e.g., the lauded author below!), but perhaps I’ll give it a try. Or if they’re seedlings, I guess I’ll admire them as much (or more) but without the fancy pedigrees.
The book ’ Apple Culture in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Wisconsin Border’, by the way - is despite what you’d think (or hope) - 100% useless & 101% awful. I decided to post a mini-review of that in a different post. So no help there!
The complete opposite is Bunker’s ‘Apples and the Art of Detection’, wow what a book! Even though it’s 99% Maine it’s a zillion times more useful for the Upper Peninsula than the aforementioned disaster. And he can write! It gives inspiration to solve the mysteries, but also makes me think I’m a few decades too old and in a too remote area to be able to learn enough in time to do any effective identification…
But the apples - man oh man, they just keep amazing & perplexing me and I like mysteries too.