I was making apple sauce one day and as I cut the pieces of the fruit I noticed the dark seeds within the core, shiny and alive. The reality is that the seeds in apples are not commonly used in apple propagation today commercially. The majority of apples are cloned, because of the incredible genetic variability within apple seeds. There are many reasons for cloning, but today I would like to illustrate why it is so beautiful and important to plant apple seeds.
If we go back to the beginning of Apples, Eastern Kazakhstan holds the world’s original wild apple forest. All of our apples we currently grow today, stem from this forest origin. 300 year old massive trees live here, bearing an array of different apples. These trees are found to be resistant to many of the common diseases that orchardists are up against in conventional apple growing practices.
This wild apple forest is quite a different picture compared to the domesticated apple. Conventional dwarf apples are bred to be small enough for easy harvest, and are very weak and fragile trees. The goal is towards ever increasing outputs of fruit, while other aspects of the trees growth are disregarded throughout the course of breeding. These trees can barely hold themselves up, with more fruit than wood. There are several rounds of pesticides per season that a conventional orchard grower is required to apply in order to defend it from every insect and fungus and plant that grows beside it. This is all to reach the end point of the perfect apple that our society thrones. They have been described as being on a constant IV drip to keep them going.
The 10 or so species we’re used to picking up at the supermarket certainly lack in showcasing the remarkable reality of genetic diversity within these trees. There are a known 7500 different apple varieties in the world, but this figure is dwindling due to the current practice of raising apples.
Apple trees are cloned today through a process called grafting in commercial settings so that genetic consistency can be continued on from one tree to the next. We are able to maintain that delicious apple for as long as want. Which is a beautiful thing, however…the landscapes around us are changing. Without new genetics, these trees are not evolving. They remain the same in a changing, dynamic climate.
A common narrative we all hear is that “you get one good apple variety for every 1000 seeds you plant“. This is because planting a seed isn’t going to give you the same apple it came out of. Seeds aren’t true to type, just as you and I are different from our parents. Somehow along the line, people planted less and less seeds. I studied Horticulture, and this narrative prevailed there too. This number “1 in 1000”, seems to deter most from planting apple seeds, and we all end up with cloned apple trees from the local nursery. And when it comes down to it, I’m skeptical of how accurate this projected statement is. For all of the advantages that cloned varieties have, seedlings have quite a few themselves.
For the sake of discussing how poignant this matter really is, let’s consider the truth that clones are an evolutionary dead end. With our ever changing planet we need new evolutionary advances in our sources of food.
Let’s not forget that every apple variety we see in the grocery stores was once a seed planted by people like you and me. It seems that this statement to not plant apple seeds because you won’t get a good apple is relatively harmless, but it’s subconsciously disempowering this beautiful ability that we all have to grow trees. Many nursery growers are tremendous at their job, but planting seeds is one of the most human things you can do. You don’t need to be an expert. This act of cloning and disregarding seeds is creating a loss of diversity. I’m not describing lost in a way that is retrievable. These genetics are lost in a way that can never be found again.
Why is this such a big deal? Why should we save seed and plant seeds? Why not just save the best ones? And when it comes to apples, why should we plant our seeds in a world that purchases the same lovely kinds of apple clones that have been on the market for years?
The problem with only saving the best seeds is that the best seeds out there are only an illusion of our current perspective world. Whatever apple has the best fruit right now could have the worst disease resistance in 5 years because of the changing climate. Or insect pressure. Or whatever other adversity is in our path. Things are in great flux, and every seed has unique traits. Perhaps that apple seed you plant is something we could fall back on as a species when the time calls for it. Even if the apple tastes astringent and bitter, it may still have a quality of cold hardiness, or pest resistance that we could absolutely need in the future. Plus, no matter how sour the apple is, there is always jelly we can make.
The greatest thing of all is that by planting your apple seeds, you’ve created an apple variety unlike any other apple that’s grown on this planet before. Your very own apple baby! A living breathing beautiful tree with completely unique traits that have adapted and grown in this time of right now. Through the lens of a greater picture, apple seeds create such an important ripple in food security.
In the words of Cary Fowler, a biodiversity archivist, “I can’t look you in the eyes and tell you that I have a solution for climate change, for the water crisis. Agriculture takes 70 percent of fresh water supplies on earth. I can’t look you in the eyes and tell you that there is such a solution for those things, or the energy crisis, or world hunger, or peace in conflict. I can’t look you in the eyes and tell you that I have a simple solution for that, but I can look you in the eyes and tell you that we can’t solve any of those problems if we don’t have crop diversity. Because I challenge you to think of an effective, efficient, sustainable solution to climate change if we don’t have crop diversity.”
Recognize the incredible power we all have to encourage a food secure evolution. Don’t wait for anyone. Plant some apple seeds, and marvel at the trees they become. This is how Johnny Appleseed created so many different wonderful varieties; by simply planting mass amounts of seeds.
Here’s how you can do it:
How to Plant Apple Seeds (Direct Seeding in Fall)
- Find a great spot for your apple tree to live out it’s life a few months before you want to plant it. Take your time determining a spot; assess light levels, drainage, and soil. How fast does this place drain water? Dig a hole and fill it with water to see. Does it take more than a day to drain? Examine the soil; is it sandy, loam, or clay? Or a mixture of all? If it’s heavy clay, you will need to do some amending. Apples require full sun to produce a good crop of apples so ensure good light levels are present, too.
- Add some mulch to the surface of the soil where you want to plant- the longer you do this before you plant the seeds, the better. The mulch will create nutrient rich soil beneath it that apples love, and will jump start the seeds by creating new fungal pathways in the soil microbiology. Great mulch materials to use are wood chips that were made from deciduous trees. No dyed mulches here! The best time to plant the seeds is in late Fall. This is because apple seeds need to go through a period of dormancy in order to germinate.
- Harvest an apple that’s within the same hardiness zone that you are, or purchase organic apples. Ensure the apple is quite ripe. The seeds should appear a medium dark brown if they are finished ripening. The colour should be consistent.
- Cut up the fruit and remove the seeds. Be gentle and ensure you don’t damage the seeds.
- Let the seeds dry for 2-3 days in a dark, warm place.
- Make a furrow about one inch deep in your prepared spot; try to ensure that no mulch gets into the furrow.
- Pop all of the seeds in the furrow about 1/4 deep and sprinkle fine soil on top of it. Over plant because it’s likely that not every seed will come up. Cover the seeds, ideally some form of medium it wouldn’t have trouble growing through, rather than a heavy clay. For instance, light sand, or if you don’t have sand, simply massage the soil in your fingers to get rid of any big clumps the seed would have trouble pushing through.
- Sit on your butt all winter.
- In the spring, check for your seedlings to start popping up.
- Watch it grow!
- Add well rotted compost around the base of the tree, and then mulch again.
- Protect in some way, with chicken wire wrapped around it for instance. The seedlings will be prize food for rabbits and other animals.
Silver, A. Trees of Power; Ten Essential Arboreal Allies. (2019). Chelsea Green Publishing. Spencer, New York.
Fowler, C. One Seed at a Time, Protecting the Future of Food. (2009). TedGlobal. ark
Shepard, M. Restoration Agriculture; Real World Permaculture for Farmers (2013). Acres USA