In need of the wild – on farms, orchards – and life!

I am lucky enough to teach what I love.  In one of my classes at the University of Massachusetts this week, Botany for Gardeners, we discussed the “Johnny Appleseed chapter” of Michael Pollan’s book Botany of Desire.  If you haven’t read it yet, check it out.

Pollan, who is well-known among local food advocates for Omnivore’s Dilemma, is an avid gardener.  In Botany of Desire he explored the natural history of four plants, one of them – the apple.  While the book if full of good botany and history on the apple, there are also some big ‘life lessons.”  In our discussion (with 165 students – some of them interested), this quote from the book emerged…..

“the apple had to forsake its former domestic life and return to the wild before it could be reborn…. as distinct from the old European stock as Americans themselves.”

What does that mean?

It was truly inspiring to find that many of the students “got it.”  Do you?  Do you know enough about the food you eat (in this case, the apple) to be able to learn something about life in general from its history and biology?  Here are a few clues from Pollan:

  1. The apple is a native of Kazahstan (remember Borat?) where there are large forests of trees related to the apple with many, many different types, shapes, colors and flavors (most of them inedible).  This region, the so-called center of origin of the apple, is the the “mother ship” of apple diversity.

  2. Apples were brought to New England by European settlers and were not terribly well-adapted to their new home in America at first.

3. Apples are spread by “clones”, that is genetically identical off-spring are grafted onto new rootstocks and re-planted.  The new trees produce fruit that are exactly like the parents (in this case, just like the original plants imported from Europe with the Pilgrims).

4. John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) collected seeds from apple cider mills and planted nurseries of apples (from seed) throughout the Midwest (this is called sexual reproduction because it takes the flower of two different trees to make a fruit and seed.

6. Some of the new apple types grown from seed did well and adapted to their new home, others didn’t and died out.  Over time, settlers selected the types they liked best and then returned to the standard means of maintaining preferred varieties – grafting (called vegetative reproduction rather than sexual reproduction).

7. Apples grown from seed are likely to be quite different from their parents (its called heterozygosity – I”m teaching a science class). In this sense, the European apple might be said to have “returned to the wild” because the new American apples were very different from their European parents.

8. So the domesticated apple of Europe, went wild in America before it was once again domesticated in its new home.  The “wild phase” was key to its survival!


Get it?

Yup, wildness is a necessary part of survival. Continuous change is a strategy that contributes to the sustainability of a species in a changing world.

Can you think of any implications of this story for our current human culture?  What about in your own life?


I would love to hear what you think?

P.S.  If you are curious about our undergraduate teaching program, check us out here.

One thought on “In need of the wild – on farms, orchards – and life!”

  1. Greenfield Community College is offering a 5-week series entitled, “Foodies of Franklin County” on Tuesday nights, 6:30-8:30 p.m. , Oct 12-Nov 9, downtown campus. From “The Chicken or the Egg: raising backyard chickens” to food preservation, extending the season, food safety and heirloom apples and making cheese, there is something for everyone to get started in growing your own local food. Sponsored by CISA. To register, go to or call 413 775-1803. See you there!

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