Indigenous apple described by De Soto Chronicles rediscovered in the North Carolina Mountains
Saplings of this remarkable tree are now available at several commercial nurseries!
The Creek word for the indigenous apple that our ancestors grew in Georgia, before the arrival of Europeans, was svtv-rakko, which means “Big Persimmon.” You will learn why this name is highly significant in this article.
The elite neighborhood of the great town of Kusa, situated where Talking Rock Creek joined what is now called the Coosawattee River in Northwest Georgia, was laid out into a system of streets and blocks. The chroniclers of the Hernando de Soto Expedition stated that within these blocks were courtyards filled with fruit and nut trees such as a sweet purple plum, a mildly sweet apple tree, hazelnut, pawpaw, persimmon and chinquapin. Outside the town were huge cultivated orchards where domesticated hickory nut trees were grown to produce nut oil and nut butter . . . Kusa’s most important exports . . . and massive chestnut trees. The edges of cultivated fields were defined by tart red plum and persimmon trees. The Spaniards also observed expansive fields of cultivated strawberry and blueberries . . . kept free of insects by flocks of domesticated turkeys.
Twentieth century historians and anthropologists scoffed at the accounts by early European explorers of domesticated strawberries, purple plums, indigenous apples and indigenous chickens in the Lower Southeast. Everyone knew that all strawberries, purple plums, apples and chickens came from Europe. Apparently, they didn’t talk to farmers and agricultural scientists. The strawberry developed by the ancestors of the Creek Indians is now the grand-daddy of virtually all commercial strawberry plants in the world. A superior variety of purple plum was selectively developed in the highlands of central Mexico and still grows feral in the Lower Tennessee River Valley. Scientists in Peru and Chile have proven that their indigenous chicken is indeed indigenous and probably was bred with smaller European chickens to produce the hybrid White Leghorn chickens that predominate today. But what about these so-called indigenous apples seen growing in Northwest Georgia in 1540?
In the autumn of 1986, a close friend of mine, who was a scientist at the US Forest Service’s Southeastern Experiment Station in Asheville, took me on a hike up into the Pisgah National Forest in Haywood County, NC. He showed me something remarkable. It was a grove of wild apple trees, heavily laden with healthy apples, AFTER a heavy frost. They were real apples, not crabapples. They were not as sweet as commercial apples, but heck . . . they were growing in the shade of massive hardwood trees on the side of a mountain.
Now, feral apple trees are not that unusual in the Southern Appalachians. A big one in the center of our upper pasture in the Reems Creek Valley became the focus of the “pioneer village” in the movie, Last of the Mohicans.” Denny said, though, that these trees were identical to the wild apple trees of the Caucasus Mountains in eastern Europe, except for one thing . . . he had never, ever heard of a European apple that only ripened after frost. All he knew, would quickly rot after being frozen. Apparently, at some time in the past this species had absorbed DNA from the American Persimmon, whose fruit DOES only ripen after frost. Agricultural scientists hoped to capture that gene in order to produce an apple that could be shipped in extremely cold weather. Unfortunately, my friend was transferred to another USFS office before he could experiment with this tree.
Twenty years later, I recalled those strange apples, when reading the accounts of Kusa in the De Soto Chronicles. I attended a SEAC conference on the De Soto Expedition. The anthropology professor had grinned all-knowingly like a Cheshire cat when I asked him about the descriptions of Kusa’s agriculture. He said that it was all a figment of Castilian imagination in order to attract Spanish colonists. There was no such thing as an indigenous purple plum or apple. He was definitely wrong about the purple plum. I was not so sure he was right about the apple.
I did some more research. Many more of these strange feral apples were growing in western North Carolina over a century ago, when George Vanderbilt assembled his 30,000 acre Biltmore Estate. In one of his outings, Vanderbilt noticed the wild apples and instructed his gardeners to domesticate them. The domesticated version was named the Biltmore Apple and given the scientific name of malus glabrata. Twentieth century nurseries crossed the Biltmore Apple with the American Crabapple to produce a showier cover of blossoms and smaller fruit. That plant is now called the Biltmore Crabapple, but even the cultivar is very rare. It still has small sweet apples on it that DO NOT look like crabapples.
Probably, no botanists have actually seen a wild Biltmore Apple, so the misnomer of being labeled a crabapple continues. You see . . . there is a problem. The leaves and fruit of the Biltmore Apple are identical to that of the wild apple tree of Eurasia . . . not the American crabapple. They are different species.
The Junaluska Apple
Last night, Tom Brown of Clemmons, NC, sent me his annual Heritage Apple newsletter. Tom has dedicated his life to preserving the hundreds of apple varieties once grown by pioneer families that were ignored in the 20th century. I urge you to take a look at his fascinating web site. Go to: Tom Brown’s Heritage Apples
Tom’s article about the recently rediscovered Junaluska Apple caught my eye. This apple was first identified in Haywood County, where Denny showed me the wild apples growing in the Pisgah National Forest. They look exactly like the apples I saw on those trees. They ripen from November to February. It is a true apple that can ripen in a snowstorm. This has to be that same apple.
According to local folklore, this was the favorite apple of Cherokee Chief Junaluska . . . who actually was not a chief, but a conjurer of demons in fires (shaman). Most descriptions say that this apple was “invented” by the Cherokees, but we have eyewitnesses, who saw it growing in Georgia 150 years before the Cherokees arrived in North Carolina. The Spanish observed Creeks growing peach trees in Middle Georgia as early as 1600! That doesn’t matter. The important thing is that this rare apple has been saved. Along with many other plants developed by our indigenous ancestors, this unusual apple tree would make a wonderful addition to your yard or farm.
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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