NEW WILMINGTON — Like the four generations that proceeded him, Lyle Johnston has spent a lifetime growing what he considers the world’s tastiest apples on the fruit farm his great-great-grandfather Josiah Johnston planted in 1861. In all, he’s got some 50 varieties spread across 17 of the farm’s 147 acres, including sweet-sour Jonagold and aromatic Honeycrisp, a relatively new apple developed at the University of Minnesota that has taken the apple-eating community by storm.
Yet it’s not all about what wins the apple popularity contest. Tucked in among the branches are a few “odd-ball” heirloom varieties that, if not for the efforts of dedicated farmers like Mr. Johnston, 58, and his father, Ralph, might have disappeared from the commercially grown apple landscape. One of the most unusual is a tart, purplish-red apple that speaks, at least in name, to the buggy-riding plain people who settled in this corner of Lawrence County in the mid 1800s.
The Johnstons have been growing Black Amish apples for the last six or seven years, and only on two of the thousands of apple tree branches that hang so heavy with fruit this time of year behind the farm’s store on state Route 18. (That’s right, branches, not trees.) So it’s understandably a small crop: just two pecks this year, or roughly 50 apples.
Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone more enthusiastic about old-time apples than the senior Mr. Johnston, who built the original Apple Castle farm market in 1950 and, at age 88, each day still drives himself the five miles from his apartment in town to work with its honey bees.
“It’s just nice to know you have an apple that might have dropped on Isaac Newton’s head,” he says.
Actually, the English physicist is thought to have been bopped on the head by a Flower of Kent, a pear-shaped cooking apple that is now also largely gone from cultivation. But we get the point. There’s something special about an apple that Johnny Appleseed himself (aka John Chapman) might have planted in one of his nurseries.
Whether Mr. Johnston’s grandson Steven, 25, who’s currently putting a degree in agribusiness management from Penn State to use at Brown’s Orchard near York, Pa., will share his love of “antique” apples when he someday boomerangs home is anyone’s guess. But Slow Food Pittsburgh is certainly a fan, which is why this rare regional apple — Apple Castle is the sole commercial orchard in Western Pennsylvania believed to grow it — is the guest of honor at the fifth Urban Applefest and Apple Pie Baking Contest Oct. 23 at the Union Project in Highland Park. Other featured apples include Northern Spy, Stayman, Cortland and Connell Red, a hardy sweet red apple that was developed in the 1940s in Wisconsin and grown locally in John Daugherty’s Murrysville orchard.
To help conserve and promote heirloom apple varieties in the U.S. and bring them back to consumers’ tables, SFP also is sponsoring the Black Amish for reintroduction next month as part of a national program called Renewing America’s Food Traditions. In November, North Carolina’s Big Horse Creek Farm will send 10 trees grafted onto dwarf root stock to orchards in Pittsburgh.
While apple trees can be grown from seeds, it’s inadvisable if you want fruit that’s a carbon-copy of the original, as modern apples are hybridized; like children, apple trees born from pips only inherit some of their parents’ characteristics. Bringing a long-absent apple variety back to life, then, is a years-long process that takes as much skill as it does effort because each individual leaf bud has to be carefully grafted onto a host branch and then nursed through four or five seasons before you get a crop.
The elder Mr. Johnston, though, has proven himself pretty expert over the years at splicing together a twig with a bud on it, called a scion, and rootstock with a pocket knife, despite hands made shaky by age. One of the two trees on which he’s grafted Black Amish buds — given to him by Davis Huckabee, a retired minister and heirloom apple lover with a big back yard in Salem, Ohio — holds at least two other varieties on its limbs, including the tart Fall Rambo, identified as one of Johnny Appleseed’s favorite varieties.
Not that creating a new apple like Honeycrisp is a walk in rubber muck boots in the park.
“It takes maybe 1,000 crosses to find one with potential,” says Lyle Johnston, as his father demonstrates how to slice a bud from a branch and then make a matching cut in the host tree. He shoots him a look of admiration. “But he’s good.”
Lucky he has a knife of his own in the pocket of his blue jeans, because when asked if the Black Amish is a better apple for eating or baking, he has to jog his taste buds with an on-the-spot taste test.
“I don’t even remember,” he confesses with a sheepish grin, offering me a wedge of the crisp yellow flesh. The answer: it’s slightly tart and very crunchy, or not that far afield from the sweet-sour Jonagolds he calls his favorite. His father, on the other hand, prefers Mother Sweet, an eating apple cultivated in Massachusetts in the 1840s.
But what’s that saying about variety being the spice of life?
Or as Lyle Johnston puts it, “It looks good, it cooks good, it eats good, and I’m glad to have it on my farm.”