The Legacy of Old Apple Varieties in Southern Agriculture

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.

| February 2011

  • Old Southern Apples
     The author of Old Southern Apples, Creighton Lee Calhoun, Jr., is a leader in apple conservation in America. This book features images of old apple varieties and offers a unique glimpse into American agriculture and the history of growing apple trees in the South.

  • Old Southern Apples

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  

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. 

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