Gardening

fruit: some surprising history, and growing advice, with lee reich

‘TIS THE SEASON when I’m making more applesauce to freeze and baking pears for dessert (or for breakfast), so what sweeter topic for today’s episode than fruit? Lee Reich, who has written several books on the subject, is here with some fascinating history of the origins of the fruits we love, and some how-to growing advice, too.

Lee Reich, who gardens on his half-farm, half-garden—or farmden, as he calls it—in New Paltz, New York, is the author of many books, including the recent “Growing Figs In Cold Climates.” His latest is a juicy little book simply called “Fruit” (affiliate links), with 250 historic watercolors and some history of apples, pears, berries and more.

Did you know there are more than 7,500 kinds of apples (and thousands of pear varieties)—or that raspberries and blackberries are not actually berries, but bananas and grapes are?

Plus: Enter to win a copy of the book “Fruit” by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.

Read along as you listen to the Nov.16, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

historic fruit and how-to growing tips, with lee reich

 

 

Margaret Roach: You and your fruit. This guy—he loves fruit, this guy.

Lee Reich: I’m a fruit nut.

Margaret: I know you are. It’s almost like a little gift thing. It’s small and chunky. It can fit in your hand; it’s this fun little thing. This project, I think, had special interest to you, because of a past connection to the place where the watercolors that are featured in it, or near the place, where they’re stored—where they’re archived. Tell us about how this began.

Lee: Yeah, well I had just finished my fig book last year. It came out, and I wanted to take a little break from writing a book, or a longer break, and I was contacted by the publisher. They said they had this book, and they described it, and it was quite different from what I usually write. It’s not a how-to book. It’s really almost like an art book. Some history. Some fruit lore, of course.

As I said, I wasn’t that anxious to dive into another book, even though this one would require less writing from me.

But on the other hand, it just seemed like, “Geez, I feel like I should write this book,” because it seemed like it was meant for me for a number of reasons. One is that I’m crazy about growing fruits. I really like fruits, and I’ve been doing this for decades.

The other thing is, the images that are in the book were done for the USDA. It’s odd, but the USDA hired a number of illustrators between the late 1800s and up to about 1940-something, I can’t remember what it is. They hired them to do these drawings, these watercolor illustrations of fruits, and they’re really quite beautiful. Besides liking fruit, I really like drawings of fruits, or illustrations of fruits. I have a number of other ones. That was one thing.

The other thing is that all these were done for the USDA, and they’re housed in the National Agricultural Library, and I did my doctoral work in the Fruit Lab of the USDA, right across the street from the National Agricultural Library. I saw some hints of other artwork, fruit-related artwork, when I’d go into the lab, the main lobby when I worked there. That was one thing that really, I thought-

Margaret: Good memories. Good memories. Yeah.

Lee: Yeah. Also, I had been exposed to a lot of different varieties. Some of these varieties were pretty much unknown, but they had a big collection of apple varieties at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Station, where I did my research. So I really got to know and taste a lot of different apple varieties.

Margaret: Yeah. I think they commissioned mostly female watercolor artists to do these, I think you say in the book; mostly women. Why did they need these watercolors? Was it for reference? What was the reason?

Lee: Well, it started out, the USDA, this was a project that was initiated by somebody named Henry Van Deman in the 1880s. He was actually an orchardist and nurseryman, and he wanted some way of promoting, I guess, his job and similar jobs selling fruit trees. So he approached the USDA, and he was appointed head of the newly formed Division of Pomology [laughter]. Pomology is the science of food growing. P-O-M, not P-A-L-M.

Margaret: Yes.

Lee: It’s interesting. I came across this one figure, that the first artist they hired was a man, William Prestele, and he was hired in 1887 at $1,000 a year, which seems like a lot for 1887. It probably was a lot, and it was one-third of the division budget at the time.

Margaret: Oh, wow.

Lee: The whole purpose of the project was really to help promote commercial promotion of the fruits, but also so that if somebody went to buy an apple tree and then it bore fruit, they could see that this is the same fruit, that this is what it is.

Margaret: Right, right, right.

Lee: Then I think there was a certain amount of chauvinism in this whole thing. There were a lot of American varieties of apples that had developed, and I guess they wanted to show, “Well, you Europeans have your apples, but we also have quite a few of our apples.”

Margaret: Right. Now, so apples are not an American native crop. They’re naturalized, I guess, since the early colonists brought them over, but where do they come from, like Kazakhstan, or something, initially? Is that their native land?

Lee: Their origin is in Kazakhstan, in the mountains. But you would think that they were native here since, especially in apple-growing regions such as here in the Hudson Valley, there’s wild apple trees all over the place.

Margaret: Right, so they have naturalized.

Lee: Yeah.

Margaret: Yeah. So in the book there are many apples, or I think there’s more apples than anything else in these little watercolor portraits in this little, again, sort of like a gifty kind of feeling book. Some have hilarious names like ‘Red Democrat’ [laughter].

Lee: Oh, I wanted to mention that one [below, ‘Red Democrat’ watercolor from the book].

Margaret: Ah. O.K., well, tell me.

Lee: That was one. I know, a lot of these varieties people just, they had a seedling in their property and it bore fruit and they liked the fruit and they just made up a name. So I’ve never heard anything else about this ‘Red Democrat’ besides in this book. There’s a number of varieties like that.

Another one that, I don’t know if this one actually made it into the book because I chose them on the basis of their name and how pretty I think the drawings were, and also some with historical value. But there was another one called ‘Ozone.’ So I think that one wouldn’t sell that well either now.

Margaret: Now, so you just said think about people maybe selected a variety that popped up in their yard or whatever, their farm or whatever. So apples don’t come true from seed? If I have a particular variety of apple, and I take the seeds from the fruit and plant them, I’m not going to get that identical, genetically identical, apple variety. Is that correct?

Lee: Right. I remember when I worked, I actually also worked for Cornell in fruit research, and I remember years ago speaking to the apple breeder at Cornell and they had estimated that if you plant an apple… say if you took a ‘Macintosh’ apple, you took out the seed and you planted it and that seedling bore fruit, there’s a one in 10,000 chance that that fruit would be as good as the original, or even that it might be good.

So you have to plant a lot of apple seeds to breed a better variety. But at that time, in this country in the 1800s, a lot of apples, a lot of seeds were just planted, Johnny Appleseed being one of those people. There were seedlings popping up all over and there’s a lot of bad ones, but there are quite a few good ones that originated.

Margaret: So where did ‘Red Delicious,’ speaking of a famous apple, unlike some of the ones you just mentioned that we’ve never heard much about or anything about, what about ‘Red Delicious’? Because that’s ubiquitous now, yeah?

Lee: Right. First, I think ‘Red Delicious’ is more infamous than famous-

Margaret: [Laughter.] Ah, O.K.

Lee: …just because of its quality. But that originated in the 1890s on a farm in Iowa, of the farm of Jesse Hiatt. He thought it was really a good variety, and it looked actually and tasted quite different from today’s ‘Red Delicious.’ I’ve actually grown it. You can still get scion wood, which is how you propagate new apple trees, and you can make your own original ‘Red Delicious.’

But fresh, or the color, it’s red and yellow-striped, that’s one thing. The second thing is it does have a delicious flavor, believe it or not. So he entered it in a contest with Stark Brothers Nursery, which still exists and sells fruit trees today. This was in the 1890s, and he had named it ‘Hawkeye,’ and Stark Brothers really liked it and they bought the rights to the plant. There was no planned patenting then.

So you really had to protect your original tree or people just cut stems off and they’ll propagate their own. Stark Brothers named it ‘Delicious.’ The name was later changed to ‘Red Delicious’ [watercolor of it below from the book], because Stark Brothers in the early 1900s bought rights to ‘Golden Delicious.’

Margaret: Oh yes. So it was just to distinguish it.

So apples are not that easy to grow in the Northeast, where they are, however, grown a lot—or especially organically they’re not that easy to grow. In preparing to talk to you today, I was looking at speaking of Stark Brothers and other catalogs that specialize in fruit, young fruit trees and chip them, they’re not cheap. A young tree is, some of them were $100, and some of them were $45, $55, $65 and so forth, but some of them were $100 for a small tree. It was a lot; it wasn’t cheap.

So making a decision on what to grow and so forth: very important. But then also once it arrives, it’s a little bit befuddling, because it’s been prepped for performance, to be in a good shape and so forth, but what are some of the initial things when we adopt a young apple? Like say we’re going to order some this winter and plant them next spring, we’re going to keep pruning it? Or what’s-

Lee: Well, the most important thing is site selection. There’s a few things. First of all, sun. Apples, like most fruits, need it, do best if they have at least six hours of direct summer sunlight. That’s one thing. Second thing is soil drainage, they have to have good soil drainage. That can be changed. You can mound-

Margaret: Modify. Sure.

Lee: And then the next thing is to just plant it correctly. Also, the good site involves more than just sun and soil. It also involves good air drainage, which incidentally, even though I love to grow fruits, I have the worst site-

Margaret: You’re a flat site, aren’t you?

Lee: Right. Well, it’s not flat, it’s a valley, so all the cold air comes spilling down the mountainside right into my yard here.

Margaret: Right, and so you see a lot of old orchard remnants or whatever, and even current orchards on hillsides and no, it’s not a coincidence, right?

Lee: Oh right. Yeah. That’s my dream site.

Margaret: They benefit from the warm air draining up over the land.

Lee: Yeah. I would actually rather have a good site than good soil, because you can always change the soil.

Margaret: Yeah. So those are important. Then we get the little baby and plant it correctly you said.

Lee: Yeah. I guess around here, or most of the country probably: deer. You have to have some protection against deer because they enjoy eating the trees and the fruit. [Above, a young fruit tree protected against animal damage at Lee’s.]

Margaret: Right.

Lee: Well, if only they could put two and two together and realize if they keep eating the tree, they’re not going to get any fruit either.

Margaret: Yeah. They haven’t gotten that bulletin alert [laughter]. I think you mentioned in the book there’s 7,500 varieties of known apples or something, and then pears, there’s thousands of varieties of pears. But I don’t even think I can name five. Do you know what I mean?

Lee: Yeah. Well, pears, it’s interesting because pears, there are many, many varieties. Actually I grow about 20 varieties. But it’s just that for some reason commercially it’s only… How a fruit is picked for commercial propagation and growing and selling is based on a lot of things. What it looks like is very important in this country, and also how well it ships, how easy it is to grow, maybe what shape it is.

I guess pears have not gotten all that diversity. But I have to say that, I grow a lot of different varieties of pears, and I’ve tried them and if I don’t like them, I just regraft them to another variety. The variation in the flavor and texture of apple is really far greater than just about any other fruit I find.

Margaret: Yes. The texture for me is one of the important things with pears and that could be very different. Yeah, yeah, definitely. I’m more on the buttery side than I am on the other side, so.

Lee: Right. So you don’t like Asian pears then?

Margaret: No, they’re too watery for me. They’re good, but they’re not… to me a pear is more that rich, buttery kind of thing; I like them that way.

Lee: As I think I wrote in my book, you can thank two Belgians for the butteriness of pears.

Margaret: Uh-huh. You did write that in the book, yes.

Lee: Yeah. So that was in the 19th century, two Belgians, one’s name was Nicolas Hardenport, and the other one was Jean Baptiste van Mons. Because pear, like apple, doesn’t come true from seed, so they planted thousands and thousands of seedlings and selected some really good varieties. And pears became much more popular in a much wider range of varieties in Europe, and I think they still are than they are here.

But there are a lot of very good varieties. One of the most famous ones that is, I don’t know if it’s widely grown, but if you ever tasted it, it’s probably the best pear there is, is ‘Comice,’ ‘Doyenné du Comice’ [above, the ‘Comice’ pear watercolor from the book].

Margaret: Yes. I don’t know how you say it, but yes, yes, yes. So apples and pears and in fact all the pome fruits and stone fruits, I think you say in the book, all are in the rose family; different subfamilies, but they’re all related genetically.

Lee: Yeah.

Margaret: Yeah. And they’re related to roses. So that’s another interesting thing about them.

Lee: Well, they’re not so close, like apple, you cannot cross an apple with a pear. You can’t. You can’t even graft an apple and a pear.

Margaret: No. But they’re more closely related than they are to a-

Lee: Pomegranate [laughter].

Margaret: Yes. Yes. I was going to say a fern or an oak tree [laughter]. But yes, that too. You also talk about pears, and again, even though there are thousands we may know so few and so forth, and there is a range of textures and flavors, but most of us don’t really know that as consumers at the market. And then you talk about, you get into other fruits. For instance, well peaches, and how they, I guess, they’ve naturalized more in warmer climates, yes, in the South, Southeast and so forth?

Lee: Yeah. Also, I have to name one, the name of one peach that I particularly liked that I mentioned in the book. I’m going to say it, but if you read it it has much more impact. It’s called ‘Neva Myss.’ Because peaches often get frosted by late spring frost. So ‘Neva Myss’ peach would miss those frosts. But it’s spelled N-E-V-A, new word, M-Y-S-S. I thought that’s a particularly clever name.

Margaret: Interesting. You talk about berries, too, and what’s a berry and what isn’t. Did I get this wrong? Was I falling asleep while I was reading, or too tired to get it right? Is a banana and a grape a berry? What? [Laughter.]

Lee: Well, make it even better, banana and a grape is a berry, but a blackberry and a raspberry are not berries.

Margaret: It doesn’t even make any sense. But it’s… I love botanical esoterica. So, what’s a berry?

Lee: A berry botanically is a soft fruit developing from the ovary of a single flower [above, watercolor of ‘Eaton’ raspberry from the book].

Margaret: O.K.

Lee: Blackberry, if you think about it, it’s obviously multiple ovaries there.

Margaret: So you can tell that because you see, if you look at one, what we think of as with the one fruit, the one berry, it’s really like all these tight little things together? Each one has a seed in it. And each one was from an individual flower, they’re all packed together?

Lee: Well, actually, it’s from an individual flower, but multiple ovaries in a flower. So a raspberry and a blackberry and a strawberry, they’re all called aggregate fruits. A mulberry is a fruit such as you just described, where each little round thing in a mulberry fruit has its own flower. So it’s derived from multiple ovaries.

Margaret: Oh. But a banana and a grape are berries. O.K.

Lee: Right. And a tomato.

Margaret: O.K. I know everyone will also go, “Well, tomato is a fruit,” but a tomato is technically a berry, to even distinguish it that. I see.

Lee: Right. Botanically, it’s a fruit and a berry. Legally, it’s a vegetable.

Margaret: Right. It’s represented commercially as such and so forth. Yeah, no, it’s-

Lee: So if we get a parking ticket, it’s vegetable are allowed to park there, but not fruit.

Margaret: So just to get back to some of the tree fruits, so to speak, so the pears: Where did the pears come from? Not the same place as apples? Where do peaches come from? Initially, I mean, before they came-

Lee: Right. Well, pears come from about the same place. I can remember somewhere in that part of the world, Kazakhstan in particular.

Then peaches and a lot of the stone fruits—peaches, plums, apricot—all those come from China and Western Asia. Except with plums, it’s interesting, because plums, there are a lot of native plums and they’re also plums that are native to Europe. So you have three different species, and they’ve been hybridized. So some varieties are a mix of, or most plum varieties now are a mix of either Asian and/or European, or American.

Margaret: O.K. I wanted to just ask: If I’m thinking of ordering for next year to start my own little fruit world here, my miniature Lee Reich farmden [laughter], I’ve read that you need at least two different apple varieties within, I don’t know what the recommendation is, 50 feet of one another or something, for a good fruit set. Is that true of pears? Is that true, first, and then is that true of pears? So in other words, I can’t just get one apple tree and it’s definitely going to be a good thing. Or two of the same one. It reminds me of viburnums actually.

Lee: Right. It’s not generally, you need more than one for apples, except for certain varieties—one of which I happened to taste and see it when I worked for the USDA, it’s called ‘Spencer Seedless.’ It’s a seedless apple, so it actually develops without pollination. But apples, almost all apples, need cross-pollination from two different varieties. Almost all pears do. Although on the West Coast, ‘Bartlett’ does not need pollination.

Peaches are self-pollinating. So one peach tree will do it. Apricots are somewhat self-pollinating. Ready for this? This gets even more involved: European pears are self-fruitful, but I think American ones need cross pollination. And then the hybrids have their own little quirks.

Margaret: Oh, my goodness. So you really have to do your homework is what you’re saying. Is that we don’t just order one and figure we’re done; we have to really look into not just whether it’s an apple or a pear or whatever, but which variety it is and what its requirements are.

Lee: Right. Although if your neighbor has an apple tree, that’ll work for you also.

Margaret: Right, right. O.K.

Lee: As long as it’s a different variety. If you learn how to graft, you can graft a branch of a different variety onto an existing tree to provide pollination.

Margaret: O.K. Yeah, it’s a lot. It’s a lot. For me, again, the hardest part is when the baby arrives, is I always feel like, “Uh-oh, am I going to know how to prune it ,” right? You wrote a whole book about that. Because that’s-

Lee: Pruning to be summed up for a young tree is, do what’s necessary, but make it the minimum amount of pruning, because the more you prune a tree, the more it stunts its growth. When a tree is young, you want it to grow and fill its allotted space as fast as possible.

Margaret: So it’s already been prepared, so to speak, shaped, for a good start by the nursery that sold it to you presumably, so-

Lee: Not necessarily [laughter].

Margaret: Well, one would hope if you buy it from a good supplier, yes.

Lee: Yeah. If you buy it locally, often they like small trees to look like small trees, but small trees that look like small trees grow into big trees that are too crowded with limbs so you often have to prune more.

Margaret: Exactly. So a lot of times what you’re getting from an expert company that does send you what they would grow in their own orchards, the start that they would grow, it just looks like what I used to call a whip or whatever. It’s like a linear thing, mostly. It’s not all branched out with a miniature canopy, so to speak.

Lee: Yeah, yeah. I’m totally happy to get it. My ideal fruit tree is a tree that’s often bare root, because you have better selection with bare-root plants. But a bare-root tree about 4 feet high with no branches on it, or maybe 2 or 3 at the most. [Above, a bare-root fruit tree going into the ground at Lee’s.]

Margaret: Right. Again, for the consumer who hasn’t been through it before and doesn’t have your confidence, it’s a little daunting at first. You take it out of the box and it’s like, “Oh, what am I supposed to do now? How do I get you to become a tree?” But like you’re saying, it wants to become a tree.

Lee: Especially if it’s bare root, people think, well this root has been out of the ground for who knows how long. But if it’s a good nursery, you put them in the ground they just… and you, as I said, plant them well, water them, and they just take off.

Margaret: Yeah. All right, so we have just a minute, and I just want to say, is your garden put to bed over there [laughter]?

Lee: Sort of. There’s a lot to do. 90 percent of it is, but I’m in the process now. I guess the biggest job is mulching. I have this humongous pile of wood chips from arborists, and figuring out the best way to move it. Obviously there’s a lot of ways, which I’ve been doing, but moving it to the various parts of my farmden. It’s heavy.

Margaret: Well, if you have any extra time, you can stop by over here across the river and lend a hand [laughter].

Lee: Likewise.

Margaret: O.K., we’ll do a swap. Well, Lee, I’m glad to speak to you as ever and congratulations on this fun little new book. It’s very beautiful and the watercolors are gorgeous, and it’s fun to learn some of the history and so forth of these favorite plants. So thank you so much, and I’ll talk to you again soon.

enter to win a copy of the ‘fruit’ book

I’LL BUY A COPY of “Fruit” by Lee Reich for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:

Do you grow any fruit, and if so, which kind(s)?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll select a random winner after entries close Tuesday November 22, 2022 at midnight. Good luck to all.

(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 13th year in March 2022. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Nov. 16, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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