Today is Johnny Appleseed day! An icon of American folklore, Johnny Appleseed, born John Chapman, played an integral role in the establishment of frontier communities, but also in the evolution of the apple in the New World. To understand Johnny Appleseed, it is first important to have a basic understanding of the genetics of an apple and the means by which they reproduce. Unlike modern-day orchards which are almost always established using grafted trees with known varieties, John Chapman sowed the seeds of diverse orchards and nurseries where no two apples where alike.
John Chapman was born in 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts. Historians know little about his childhood. They do know that he learned about apple growing as a young man, while working for a neighbor who owned an apple orchard.
Around 1797, Chapman moved west. He gathered sacks full of apple seeds from cider mills in settled areas. Then he headed for the frontier, keeping just ahead of westbound pioneers. He begged, borrowed, bought, or rented land near creeks and rivers, then planted seeds there. He tended the seedlings until settlers arrived. Then he sold his seedlings or orchards and moved on. He kept this up for nearly 50 years. He started orchards in western New York and Pennsylvania as well as Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois.
Chapman spread not only apples, but also the teachings of a small Christian sect called the New Church. He opposed violence of all kinds. He got along well with Native Americans. He was a vegetarian. He lived frugally. He was extremely thin, went barefoot most of the time, and wore only discarded clothing.
Historians aren't sure exactly when Chapman died. It happened sometime in March 1845 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His obituary in the March 22, 1845, Fort Wayne Sentinel reads in part: "The deceased was well-known throughout this region by his eccentricity, and strange garb. He is supposed to have considerable property, yet denied himself [...] the common necessities of life [...] He submitted to every privation with cheerfulness [...] believing that in so doing he was securing snug quarters hereafter."
-- From "The Writer's Almanac"
Although Johnny Appleseed takes on a largely mythological role in modern culture, the impacts of his work are very real. He saw every seed and every tree as valuable and worthy of existence. Although he may have taken a more spiritual approach to this appreciation, the genetic diversity found in his orchards had a very real biological significance. As we move towards large orchards with fewer and fewer varieties and the continued loss of many forgotten heirlooms, perhaps we could use another John Chapman.