An Apple a Day, Courtesy of Johnny

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by Phyllis Kennemer

Long before there was an Earth Day or anyone had heard of ecology or “living green,” a solitary man wandered the wilderness planting apple trees. Johnny Appleseed loved nature and he loved apples. He became a legend in his own lifetime. Tales about his achievements and adventures continued to grow after his death, transforming him into a popular folklore hero.

Born as John Chapman in Massachusetts in 1744, he was raised in a family with twelve children. Johnny was frequently hungry as a child – especially during the long winter months. He discovered the value of apples when his family was given a gift of apple seeds. He helped his father plant an orchard and seven years later the trees matured. Johnny was delighted to discover that his family need never be hungry again! Apples were good to eat right off the tree, and they were the basis of delicious dishes and condiments. The family feasted on apple pies, apple crisp, applesauce, apple butter and other apple concoctions. Apples could be kept year ‘round, and they could be preserved and dried.

Johnny furthered his knowledge of growing and nurturing apples through an apprenticeship in a nearby orchard. He learned that apples are not indigenous to North America, so the trees must be individually planted. As a young man, he traveled to Pennsylvania. He received permission to gather discarded apple seeds from a cider press and embarked on his lifelong passion – planting orchards in the wilderness. He knew that he needed seeds from a variety of kinds of apples to plant in the same plots for cross pollination. He also knew that in order to produce sweet-tasting apples, different species of trees needed to be grafted together. Johnny, however, believed that cutting trees was an offense against God’s handiwork, so he did not engage in this practice. Those who bought his seedlings had no such misgivings, so many of his trees were later grafted to produce sweet apples for eating. Most of the apples that matured in Johnny’s orchards were used to make cider and applejack.

Johnny studied the terrain of the lands to the West and accurately predicted routes pioneers would take. He planted orchards along these passageways and then provided seedling apple trees to the settlers. He sold the trees for a few pennies each, but he accepted IOUs (which he seldom collected) or he bartered for cornmeal or used clothing. Johnny was a conscientious nurseryman, clearing the land and putting fences of brush around the young trees to protect from wild animals. He sometimes planted orchards for settlers on land they owned. Other times he planted on bought or leased land; and he often stopped in his travels to plant seeds in uninhabited spaces.

By all accounts, Johnny was as good hearted as he was eccentric. He sometimes dressed in flour or coffee sacks; other times he wore ill-fitting tattered pants and ragged shirts. He was almost always barefoot. In cold weather, he sometimes wore mismatched footwear, such as a moccasin on one foot and a boot on the other. If he came upon someone in need of a coat, Johnny gave him his – if he had one.

Johnny Appleseed was known throughout the western territories of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. Many early pioneers had contact with him on their travels and he often visited with settlers in their homes. Children especially loved his visits. He was a mesmerizing storyteller relating exciting adventures of his wildlife experiences. His tales and his actions reflected a deep reverence for all life. One time, Johnny was bitten by a snake. He was so surprised that he used the tool in his hand to kill it. He grievously regretted his action and immediately resolved to never harm another living creature. He became a vegetarian, eating mainly cornmeal mush, roots, nuts, and berries. Sometimes when he built fires for warmth or cooking, he would notice mosquitoes flying into the flames and perishing. Johnny would extinguish the fire and sit or lie on the cold ground nearby. If he climbed into a hollow log and discovered a bear and her cubs already in residence, he would depart and sleep some distance away. When he took honey from hives, he always left plenty for the bees to survive the winter.

A religious man, Johnny would. After dinner in a settler’s home, he would stand near the fireplace and announce, “This is news fresh from heaven.” Then he would read from his Bible, which he carried tied to his waist with a rope, or from one of the Emanuel Swedenborg books he kept in his travel bag. Johnny is recognized as one of the earliest missionaries of the Swedenborgian Church. As he was concluding his visits, Johnny would tear chapters from Swedenborg’s books and leave one with his host to read until his next visit.

When Johnny was 70 years old, he was visiting friends in Fort Wayne, Indiana. A messenger informed him that one of his orchards had been invaded by cows. Johnny walked through a snowstorm, chased the cows out, and mended the fence. As a result of the exertion and exposure, he became ill with pneumonia and died soon after. He was buried in a friend’s family plot, but the wooden grave markers disintegrated quickly, so the exact spot is unknown. The graveyard land is now part of the Johnny Appleseed National Memorial Park in Fort Wayne A stone placed in the park at the time of its dedication reads, “Johnny Appleseed/John Chapman/He lived for others/ 1774-1845.”

It is unlikely that any of the trees that Johnny Appleseed planted survive today, but the legend of this compassionate, somewhat peculiar, tree-planting man lives on. In addition to his notoriety as a tall tale character, he is honored in Apple festivals during harvest seasons throughout the country. In Colorado, apple celebrations are held in Cedaredge, Lakewood and Penrose.

Are you interested in honoring Johnny’s legacy? Plant an apple tree! Apple trees, particularly bare-root, are best planted in the Spring. For more information on growing apples in Colorado, check out the CSU extension service:

Dr. Phyllis K. Kennemer is a Certified Veriditas Labyrinth Facilitator. She is a life-long learner and educator with a specialty in children’s literature.

Apples for Good Health

• Each apple has about 80 calories. • The high fiber content helps reduce cholesterol. • Potassium in apples helps regulate blood pressure. • Phytonutrients in apples lower the risk of thrombotic stroke. • The antioxidants in apples improve lung function. • Flavonoids reduce the risk of cancer. • Apples strengthen bones. • Apples are nature’s toothbrush, cleaning the teeth and massaging the gums.

Facts about Apples

• About 10,000 varieties of apples are grown in the world • More than 7,000 varieties of apples are grown in the United States • Apples are members of the rose family. Their blossoms are similar to those of wild roses.