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Saturday, April 30, 2011

evolution of the apple tree

my grandpa took this pic of my daughter PG standing atop one of my parents' apple trees in NH.

my dear and committed foodie friend JW organized an outing for a bunch of girlfriends thursday night - an environmental lecture at BU (boston university).  nathan phillips, associate professor of georgraphy and director of the center for energy and environmental studies, is an expert in global change with a passion for trees.  nathan schooled us on the evolution of the apple tree and i wanted to share some of what we learned with you.

a gazillion years ago in the tian shan mountain range, between kazakhstan and china, the first wild apple forest grew.  liken it to eden.  within each of these apples there was (and is) a chamber of 5 seeds, each seed with the potential to reproduce.  the offspring of these apples, naturally made, look nothing like their predecessors.  probably don't taste like them either.  a total hodgepodge. 

over centuries, folks traveling on the silk route spread these wild apple trees throughout asia and europe, and inevitably all over the world.  as these trees became domesticated, farmers began to figure out how to clone the biggest and tastiest apples through grafting.  grafting is the process of severing a branch belonging to an ideal fruit and binding it to an amputated branch of a more unsavory tree.  no more hodgepodge.  just barrels of perfectly identical apples.

it sounds like a great idea but there's a major flaw in it.  by grafting, or cloning, these apples, the farmers stripped away the apples' ability to genetically mutate.  when the apples stopped evolving, they were unable to fight off their enemies who were evolving.

so farmers started treating their trees with pesticides.  these chemicals blanket apple orchards, killing everything bug in sight - bad and good.  but the chemicals also started killing other living entities and making people sick. 

so this is how we got to where we are today.  it all seems innocent enough, but i think the overriding point is, don't mess with mother nature.  she created this planet to perfection and anything we humans do to change, harness or control the earth will just fuck us all up.  we are so spoiled now.  anything we want, we get on demand.  on the last day of april we can go to the market and buy and apple, though it hasn't been in season for months.  all of our food is like this.  all of our everything is like this.  i'm happy to benefit from the changes, but i must say it doesn't come without a heavy feeling of guilt. 

so there were a couple of other things nathan discussed regarding trees.  the first was an organization near and dear - the boston tree party.  this is a group of peeps whose mission it is to plant a whole lotta heirloom apple trees in boston and the surrounding area.  (they plant pairs so they can cross-pollinate.)  they are doing this in public spaces and publicly viewed spaces like church and school yards.  if you have or know of a space that could support a couple of trees, click here to join the cause. 

*on a side note, i live in a relatively urban town just north of boston.  i have three pear trees in my small yard that produce a fantastic amount of fruit.  i didn't plant them and i do not maintain them, but every other year we enough pears to feed an army.  this is something you can do, too.

one more thing nathan talked about - gas.  this is powerful information so tune in.  under the ground is an extraordinary network of pipes through which gas flows.  there are countless leaks in these pipes - leaks that are killing trees at an alarming rate and are downright dangerous to public safety.  they seep methane gas, which replaces the water and oxygen in the ground, cutting off tree roots' food source and eventually killing trees.  if you have a tree in your yard that is inexplicably dying, this may very well be the reason.  there is a man named Bob Ackley who can detect a gas leak and let you know if this is why your tree(s) are perishing.  contact him through is website by clicking  he is working with Attorney Jan Schlichtmann (of A Civil Action fame) to hold gas providers accountable for this serious problem.  but this is one problem that we can fix. 

okay, guys, hope you enjoyed this passed on message.  if you have additional information please post in the comments.  it's so important that we make our voices heard and share what we learn and know.


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