Southern agriculture struggled with low soil fertility and rounds of fungal diseases to produce many of the legendary old apple varieties the region became known for. Today, the fight for apple conservation works to keep these varieties alive and blossoming.
The following is an excerpt from Old Southern Apples, Revised and Expanded Edition: A Comprehensive History and Description of Varieties for Collectors, Growers, and Fruit Enthusiasts, written by Creighton Lee Calhoun, Jr., (Chelsea Green, 2011). The book provides images of many legendary and old apple varieties, as well as a history of apple cultivation practices used by Southern farmers.
Apple cultivation practices in the old South must be understood within the context of Southern agriculture in general. Before the Civil War, Southern agriculture was a primitive and grueling occupation based to a great degree upon slash-and-burn cultivation methods. Until 1845, when the German chemist Justus von Liebig published his Mineral Theory of Plant Nutrition, there was no scientific understanding of soil fertility and what plants needed in terms of essential nutrients and minerals from the soil. Another basic scientific principle, the fact that microorganisms cause diseases in both plants and animals, was not understood until the 1860s when Louis Pasteur published his germ theory.
Of course, by trial and error, farmers had found over the centuries that certain substances enhanced plant growth and sustained soil fertility. Barnyard manure and wood ashes were standard fertilizers, but were needed in huge amounts on Southern soils, most of which were acidic and had little natural fertility. One old agricultural text recommended the application of 2 tons of wood ashes per acre every three or four years. Southern farmers never had more than a fraction of this amount of ashes available, and had virtually no manure at all because it was standard practice to allow cattle and hogs to roam unfenced and semi-wild in forests and abandoned fields.
It was easier for Southern farmers in the 1600s, 1700s and early 1800s to clear new ground rather than try to fertilize old fields. They cut down the trees and burned them, often leaving stumps in the fields for years. The ashes from these fires, plus the thin layer of forest litter and topsoil, insured good crops for about three years. This was followed by falling crop yields until the land was completely abandoned or allowed to “lie out” and “rest” for many years. Some Southern farmers tried desperately to renew soil fertility, experimenting with such things as blood, bones, burnt clay, coal tar, chalk, charcoal, cotton seed, feathers, fish, gypsum, hair, hay, horn, leaves, malt dust, marl, muck, peat ashes, rags, salt, sawdust, soot and seaweed. In the final analysis, the only thing that kept Southern agriculture afloat was the availability of new ground to replace worn-out fields. In those days virgin lands must have seemed endless. In Georgia alone, between 1802 and 1840, 30 million acres of land were given away for free through state-run land lotteries.
Improvements in agriculture were agonizingly slow. For example, animal bones (a good fertilizer containing calcium and phosphorus) were first used in American agriculture about 1790, but the bones were not pulverized until 1830, and were not treated with acid (to increase the solubility and availability of the phosphorus) until 1851.
In 1826, Virginian Edmund Ruffin published An Essay on Calcareous Manure advocating the use of marl, a lime material made up of fine seashells, to neutralize acidic southern soils. (It also provided calcium for plant growth.) Following this publication, liming became more common in the South.
The first great breakthrough for sustainable agriculture in the South was the discovery of deep deposits of dried bird droppings on desert islands off the coasts of Chile and Peru. This high-quality fertilizer, called guano, was imported into the South in huge amounts in the years between 1840 and 1880, raising yields and allowing fields to be cropped year after year. About this same time it was discovered that Southern field peas (a nitrogen-fixing legume), if grown on depleted land and plowed under, increased crop yields the following year. Rock phosphate deposits were found in South Carolina in 1867, and other deposits were subsequently discovered in Florida and Tennessee. Rock phosphate, treated with acid, makes superphosphate fertilizer, which quickly became essential to a sustainable Southern agriculture. In Georgia for example, the number of superphosphate factories rose from a single factory in 1868 to over a hundred in 1900, but these factories could provide only half of Georgia’s demand for superphosphate fertilizer.
Beginning about 1835, a number of horticultural and agricultural magazines began publication in the North with some readership in the South. Chief among these were The Magazine of Horticulture and The American Agriculturist. About this same time, the periodical The Southern Agriculturist, Horticulturist and Register of Rural Affairs was started in Charleston, S.C., soon followed by The Southern Cultivator, published monthly in Augusta, Ga. The net result of these scientific discoveries and publications was a gradual improvement in Southern agriculture in the 20 years before the Civil War.
The Civil War, and the years that followed, were a setback to Southern agriculture and left most farmers in abject poverty. During this time, many scientific discoveries placed a solid footing under American agriculture in general and orchard practices in particular, but Southern farmers, locked in poverty and conservatism, proved difficult to convince. In 1882, The Southern Cultivator lamented the Southern farmer’s “unbounded faith in poor land poorly cultivated, with little faith in land improvement.”
Important steps were taken to get agricultural science from scholars to farmers. Two of these occurred simultaneously in the decade before 1900 — the founding of agricultural colleges and the establishment of agricultural experiment stations. Agricultural experiment stations were the result of the Hatch Act, passed by Congress in 1887, and largely funded by federal money ($15,000 per year to each state). Agricultural colleges and experiment stations were almost always located together, and planted orchards to test fruit varieties, fertilization practices, and chemical controls for pests. Working together, colleges and experiment stations began the long haul toward improving Southern agricultural practices, including orchard management.
By the time the South was settled, apples had been grown in Europe for more than 1,000 years, and much knowledge had accumulated concerning how best to grow and care for them. Southerners often ignored this accumulated knowledge and persisted in certain practices that were useless or even counterproductive. The reasons for this remain elusive, but perhaps it had to do with the single-minded concentration by Southern farmers on growing tobacco or cotton. Whatever the cause, too many farm orchards were neglected, unkempt and unproductive, useful more as pastures for cattle and hogs. By the mid-1800s, there were horticultural books and periodicals with clear and useful information on apple culture. Southern commercial orchardists and large landowners used some of this information, but little of it trickled down to rural families with small orchards.
All authorities stressed proper land preparation before planting an orchard. For the South, this meant deep plowing, especially clay soils. Deep plowing was done in the early fall by using two strong mules or horses to pull a turning plow. Behind this team came another two-mule team pulling a subsoil or chisel plow in the same furrow, breaking the soil to a depth of about 16 inches. Once the soil was deep-plowed and smoothed, shallow furrows were made 30 to 40 feet apart in a cross-hatch pattern. At the intersection of crossing furrows, apple trees were planted. This wide spacing was necessary because apple trees in those days grew to a large size — often up to 30 feet tall.
The general practice in the South was to grow crops between the fruit trees until the trees were about 10 years old. This intercropping had some benefits for apple trees, keeping down competing grass and weeds and letting the trees benefit from any fertilization the crops might receive. To avoid damaging tree roots, crops not requiring deep cultivation were grown in the orchard. These included potatoes, beans, peas,and perhaps corn. Cotton, tobacco and small grains were not supposed to be intercropped with fruit trees, but often were.
Of course, when crops were grown in orchards, the crops had to be tilled and worked with horses or mules. This presented certain hazards that were addressed in a newspaper article in 1884 by N. W. Craft, owner of a nursery in Yadkin County, N.C.:
“Many young trees are killed by allowing the single-tree and traces to drag over them when plowing. A single-tree, trace-chain, or harrow should never be allowed to even touch the fruit trees. Horses and mules are often allowed to bite off the tops or side branches of trees while plowing, causing very ill-shaped trees for years. A good muzzle on stock is a sure preventive while cultivating young orchards, even in the winter.”
If the orchard could be spared from intercropping, farmers were told to enrich the soil by planting Southern field peas in midsummer and plowing them under the following spring. Commercial orchardists often interplanted additional apple trees of varieties that would begin bearing the second or third year. This gave some return on the land until the main trees began bearing (often after eight to 10 years), at which time the interplanted trees were removed.
When the fruit trees grew large, most orchards were allowed to go to grass. The recommendation was to mow the grass in orchards but not remove it, thus building up soil fertility and tilth. Against this recommendation most Southern farmers pastured animals in orchards, damaging the trees and impoverishing the soil. (When grazing animals are removed from an orchard and slaughtered or sold, they take with them in their flesh and bones hundreds of pounds of calcium, potassium, phosphorus, nitrogen, and other minerals and nutrients from the orchard soil. This fact was not obvious to farmers in those days.) Hogs, in particular, were penned in orchards to eat fallen fruit. Large hogs rooted up and ate tree roots, and were even known to climb up in trees after fruit. They did, however, have the beneficial effect of eliminating insect larvae often present in fallen apples. In 1884, a Southern nurseryman discouraged putting large hogs in apple orchards but recommended small pigs that “root up every particle of grass in fall and winter, hunting insects and roots, but will not root deep enough to injure the roots of trees.” Chickens, turkeys, geese, or guinea fowl were sometimes kept in orchards to eat insects, particularly the curculio, which is so damaging to Southern fruit.
Southern pomologists and agriculturists recognized the low natural fertility of most Southern soils and the need to fertilize fruit trees. Writing in the Southern periodical The Farmer and Planter in 1858, the South Carolina nurseryman, William Summer, described good fertilizers for fruit trees:
1st. Wood-ashes, containing as they do all the elements necessary to growth (except carbon, which is supplied from the air), is a congenial element for all fruit trees and woody growth.
2d. Lime, whether in the form of marl, shells, plaster or stone-lime, is a specific for apple trees, and apples are largest and fairest when grown in a calcareous soil.
3d. Phosphates, in the form of bones (which are composed principally of phosphate of lime) or prepared super-phosphates, are specific for pears and grapes and congenial to all fruit trees.
4th. Ammoniacal manures such as guano, dung, and urine are specifics for the peach and give flavor and spirit to other fruits.
Exhortations to fertilize fruit trees were universal by all authorities, but there is little evidence that Southern orchards ever received much fertilizer. Surveying tattered and neglected Southern orchards in 1898, a North Carolina agricultural experiment station bulletin pulled no punches:
“The main reason for failure of the apple tree is starvation and neglect. Our people spend millions of dollars annually for fertilizers to put on cotton and grain crops, but seem to think that because the trees in the forest take care of themselves, that orchard trees can do the same. . . . Soil exhaustion is the cause of more failures of fruit trees than all other causes combined.”
Nurseries and farm journals always recommended that 1-year-old trees be planted in the late fall of the year. This advice was widely ignored by Southerners who insisted on purchasing 2- or even 3-year-old trees and planting them in the spring. Another recommendation was that newly planted apple trees be headed or topped low, which causes the lowest branches to develop about 3 feet above the ground. (Low branches shade the trunk, which helps to prevent sunscald, and a low-branched tree is easier to pick and less likely to blow over.) In the face of this good advice, most farmers pruned off all low branches so that livestock and machinery could get under the trees. Many old apple trees still can be seen with the lowest branches fully 8 feet off the ground.
Until about 1900, few Southern orchards, even commercial orchards, were sprayed to control insects and disease. This leads some people to believe that old apple varieties must be more disease and insect resistant than newer apples, which are sprayed in commercial orchards today with an array of chemicals. There is a degree of disease resistance in some of the old apple varieties, but some new apples have disease resistance also. Looked at as a whole, old apple varieties are no more resistant to diseases and insects than newer varieties. This means that Southern farm families harvested mostly blemished apples; no one expected perfect fruit. Apples with skin defects and an occasional worm were completely normal. Housewives cut out blemishes and worms without a second thought when preparing apples in the kitchen. Men and boys kept their pocketknives sharp to do the same. The American public today demands unblemished apples, which requires orchardists to spray often with chemicals to reduce insects and disease. It is not fair or correct to blame modern apple varieties or the growers for the heavy spraying they receive — blame the customer instead.
Until the late 1800s, diseases and insects were less prevalent in Southern orchards than they are today. Southern families and communities tended to be scattered and isolated, especially as new areas were being opened up, and orchards had enough isolation to give them a degree of protection. As the population grew and more fruit trees were planted, pathways were established for the spread of diseases and insects.
Some fruit-tree diseases, most notably apple scab, were introduced from overseas and took many years to spread across the United States. Several insects that now prey on apple trees were originally natural pests of native American plants and did not begin attacking apples for years. The apple maggot, a very serious insect pest today, was originally the hawthorn fly, preying upon wild hawthorns. After 1820 hawthorn flies slowly adapted to feed upon apples, and by 1890 had become a major insect pest in the eastern United States.
The curculio (a small, snout-nosed beetle) was first a pest of plums and peaches. In the 1800s it also began attacking apples, and is now another serious apple pest.
Fire blight was a very damaging disease of apple trees in the 1800s and remains so today. Most diseases of apple trees are caused by fungi, but fire blight is a highly contagious bacterial disease spread in early spring by bees and other insects that carry the bacteria to blossoms and tender shoots. The bacteria multiply rapidly, killing the blossom clusters and new shoots, causing them to blacken as if hit by a blow torch — hence the name fire blight. Sometimes the bacteria travel downward in the sap inside the tree and kill big limbs or the even entire tree.
Faced with the puzzling and discouraging damage to apple trees from fire blight (it attacks many varieties of pear trees also, even more seriously), rural Southerners devised some unusual theories for explaining this dread disease. Some even suspected that the trees had been hit by lightning!
In 1844 a major epidemic of fire blight erupted from Maryland and Virginia through Kentucky, Tennessee, and states north of the Ohio River. That year, the Reverend H. W. Beecher wrote to The Magazine of Horticulture: “The blight has prevailed to such an extent as to spread dismay among orchardists, destroying entire collections and taking half the trees in large orchards — affecting both young and old trees, whether grafted or seedlings, in soils of every kind. Many have seen the labor and fond hope of years cut off, in one season, by an invisible destroyer against which none could guard. In conflicting opinions, no one was certain whether the disease was atmospheric, insect or chemical.”
Rev. Beecher then listed the prevalent theories concerning the cause of fire blight:
1. The rays of the sun, passing through vapors which arise about the trees, concentrates upon the branches and destroys them by the literal energy of fire.
2. The soil contains deleterious substances or is wanting in properties necessary to the health of the tree.
3. Violent and sudden changes of temperature in the air or of moisture in the earth.
4. Over stimulation by high manuring or constant tillage.
5. The effect of age, the disease beginning on old varieties and then is propagated upon new varieties by contagion.
6. The cause to be an insect.
Remedies concocted by farmers and orchardists to combat fire blight and other diseases may seem quaint or even laughable today, but these were efforts by desperate men to combat something beyond their understanding. One practice around 1840 was to bore holes in the trunks of infected trees and fill the holes with sulfur. (One contemporary critic of this method described it as “about as remedial as whistling to the moon.”) Another recommendation: “Wind straw ropes round the trunk and mulch the surface of the ground over the roots.” Some orchardists even attributed fire blight to “apoplexy caused by a surcharge of electric fluid” and tried to control it by hanging old horseshoes and pieces of wire on tree limbs to conduct electricity away from the trees. Still another remedy involved peeling the bark from infected branches and applying a “weak alkaline wash.”
By 1896, largely due to scientific investigations by Professor Burrill of the University of Illinois and M. B. Waite of the USDA, the causes of fire blight and the methods of its transmission were finally understood. The remedy recommended at that time was heavy spraying with copper sulfate solutions before and after the trees bloomed, followed by removal and burning of all infected limbs and twigs. Even today control of fire blight on apple and pear trees is difficult. Streptomycin sprays can be used, but are expensive and only partly effective. The old procedure of constant vigilance to detect the disease in its early stages, followed by prompt cutting out of infected twigs and branches to halt disease spread, is still a good procedure for most home orchardists.
Another disease of apple trees in the South is the fungal disease called cedar-apple rust. For many years this disease was called “apple leaf fungus” because no one realized that the eastern red cedar tree is a host for the disease, infecting nearby apple trees. After 1880, when the disease relationship between cedar trees and apple trees was established, the best control measure for cedar-apple rust was found to be the removal of cedar trees growing near orchards and liberal spraying with Bordeaux mix early in the growing season.
Fruit growers of earlier times had to contend with what was called the plant louse, known today as the aphid. A useful remedy was found to be a “tobacco infusion” made by soaking tobacco stems in hot water and spraying the resultant nicotine tea over infected plants.
One rather peculiar and widely used practice in the 1800s was the treatment of the bark on the trunk and main limbs of apple trees. There was a widespread belief that diseases and insects resided in the crevices of bark, so the rough outer bark was scraped off and the trunk scrubbed with a concoction made up mostly of lye or lye soap. (One 1859 recipe called for a wash made of one pound of caustic soda or lye dissolved in a gallon of water.) The result was a very smooth tree trunk, sometimes bright green in color!
About 1866 a copper arsenic compound called Paris green was invented in France as an effective (although highly toxic) insecticide. It was first used in an American orchard in 1878, and its use subsequently became common in the United States, particularly on fruit trees. In 1885 Professor Millardet in Bordeaux, France, first concocted Bordeaux mix. This mixture of copper sulfate and lime in water proved to be the first effective chemical to combat fungal diseases of plants (including apple scab and cedar-apple rust), and its use on fruits and vegetables was strongly recommended by the USDA and agricultural experiment stations. Southern commercial orchardists used these chemicals to boost production and satisfy the increasing demand for blemish-free apples. Because apple trees in those days were quite large, commercial orchardists used large and powerful spray equipment, usually horse-drawn and requiring two or three men to operate. The size and cost of this spray equipment prevented small farmers from spraying home orchards. Besides, blemished fruit was acceptable to farm families as even the worst of it was useful for cider, vinegar and animal feed.