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Feature - ISSUE #9

Slow Fruit

Words by Bernd Brunner

Over the centuries we have lost an estimated 13,000 varieties of apple, along with countless family orchards. The mass market prizes speed and quantity over quality, which is in turn leading to even fewer varieties being available, but this realisation has led to a resurgence in traditional fruit farming, with orchards taking time to nurture a range of flavours and reconnect with the rhythm of the seasons.

Apple harvests used to be a communal activity. Location unknown. (PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY MAUREEN MALONE www.frogtopia.com.au.)

The days when fruit growing primarily meant monks lovingly tending the trees in secluded monastery gardens are long gone. Most of the fruit sold in supermarkets today has never been anywhere near a romantic grove. Instead, it comes from vast plantations that operate more or less like factories, with the goal of producing fruit of consistent size and flavour that stays fresh as long as possible. In many cases, it can even be harvested before it is ripe. We should also remember that, for people outside the tropics, shortages of fresh fruit and vegetables during the winter months and into the spring were commonplace until the middle of the 20th century. Increasing the availability of fresh fruit required long-distance transport and storage in controlled-nitrogen environments that keep it from spoiling. Now many of us have a vast range of choices. For example, although pomegranates don’t ripen in the northern hemisphere until September, consumers there can buy them in the summer, too, because they are flown in from South America to be sold at local supermarkets. Of course, there are additional ecological costs to such a practice.

Much of the fruit for sale today is not even fruitful in the literal sense: just think of all the seedless grapes and mandarins out there. Towering fruit trees with their majestic crowns are also disappearing. Modern farming methods and equipment are designed with more compact-growing varieties in mind, which are easier to tend and bring larger, higher-quality yields. It’s a development that could be described as “dwarfing down”.

If you walk through a modern apple farm, you will see long rows of spindly growths, each with just a single main branch. The apples themselves hang on the short, horizontal limbs that protrude from this central axis. This kind of high-intensity cultivation has nearly nothing in common with the traditional notion of a 19th- or 20th-century orchard. Gardeners in the past cultivated fruit trees to grow on walls, but today the term fruit wall stands for something quite different: a narrow hedgerow formed when trees are planted closely together and pruned mechanically. The point of this exercise is to save space and - thanks to a tractor that prunes the trees - labour, so that the fruit can be brought to market cheaply.

Do methods like these represent the point of maximum fruit-farming efficiency, or are further improvements possible? Anthony Wijcik, of Kelowna in British Columbia, created a sensation in the mid-1960s with a surprising horticultural innovation. His daughter Wendy had discovered a mutation in a 50-year-old McIntosh apple tree: instead of branching into a progressively finer network of limbs and twigs, one of the branches produced fruit directly from short spurs. The “columnar” apple trees produced from this mutation are known as McIntosh Wijciks. Their apples are large and dark red but unfortunately not particularly tasty.

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