Why the Iconic Apple?

CHANCES ARE you would not be reading this if I were writing about spinach or carrots. Healthy and delicious as these vegetables are, neither one captures our collective imagination the way apples do. Neither do pears or plums. No other food, in fact, appeals to us so profoundly in as many ways as apples.

Apples play major roles in legends and myths across cultures and centuries, from Adam and Eve to the Golden Apple, from William Tell to Sir Isaac Newton. The cultural cache of spinach and carrots is limited to propaganda in cartoons. Popeye’s strength-giving spinach and Bugs Bunny’s carrot may or may not encourage children to eat their vegetables, but they are hardly iconic.

Apples are central to stories meant for children, too, although with less innocence, and greater nuance. Snow White is seduced by a poisoned apple, echoing Eve in the Garden of Eden. When Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion pick apples en route to Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, the trees fight back.

In many of our cherished stories and myths, the apple simultaneously elicits both our hopes and fears. Their beauty and flavor are irresistible, and sometimes are used against us.

Apples beguile us like no other fruit. Grapes are sour or wrathful. A lousy car is a lemon. A rhubarb is slang for fight. But an apple a day keeps the doctor away.

“The apple of my eye” is a term of endearment. A raspberry is a form of contempt, or the color of a bruise. A skinned knee is a strawberry. Ouch.

According to myth, Sir Isaac Newton discovered gravity after being hit in the head with an apple. A cherry tree is a mere prop in a story about George Washington’s honesty.

If one interprets the Bible literally, it is doubtful that an apple would have been growing in the Garden of Eden, somewhere in the Middle East. More likely it would have been a pomegranate. But an apple has replaced it in the story as the complex symbol of beauty, knowledge, and temptation.

Apples appear not just in our fairy tales and ancient myths. Since the 1920s, people have referred to New York City as the “Big Apple” — not banana or peach. The Beatles’ famous 1968 record label is an apple, not a blueberry or melon.

The computer company co-founded in 1976 by Steve Jobs is named “Apple,” not “Orange,” and its signature product for years was a “Mac,” for McIntosh, not a “Navel.”

Oranges make their way into our popular idioms only on the coattails of apples, as when someone equating dissimilar items is said to be “comparing apples with oranges.” Indeed. There is no comparison with apples when it comes to versatility, variety, convenience, accessibility — and influence.

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Lady, or Christmas apple, may date back to ancient Rome. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)
Lady, or Christmas apple, may date back to ancient Rome. (Bar Lois Weeks)

APPLES POPULATE not just our cultural myths, but our personal and local histories, too. It is partly a consequence of grafting, the centuries-old technique for propagating apple varieties. Among other things, it means that every apple is a replica, a direct descendant of the original tree on which it first grew. We can tell a lot about our own history through this remarkable fruit.

Rare apples remind us of the agrarian roots of contemporary urban settings like Hartford, Connecticut, population 125,000 (Hartford Sweeting, pre-1830), the Boston suburb Roxbury, population 46,000 (Roxbury Russet, 1635), and Westfield, Massachusetts, population 41,000 (Westfield Seek-No-Further, 1700s).

Apples popular a century or more ago still evoke our rural character, in Hubbardston, Massachusetts, population 4,000 (Hubbardston Nonesuch, early 1800s), Oxford, Maine, population 4,200 (Black Oxford, circa 1790), and Tinmouth, Vermont, population 600 (Tinmouth, pre-1850).

Apples come in nearly every color: PaulaRed (1960), Burgundy (1953), and Pink Lady (1970s); Cox’s Orange Pippin (1825); Ginger Gold (1969) and Yellow Bellflower (late 1700s); Rhode Island Greening (1600s); Blue Pearmain (1800s); Gray Apple (aka Pomme Gris, early 1800s); Arkansas Black (1842); and White Pippin (early 1800s).

Sheep's Nose, also known as Black Gilliflower, was discovered in Connecticut in the 1700s. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)
Sheep’s Nose, also known as Black Gilliflower, was discovered in Connecticut in the 1700s. (Bar Lois Weeks)

There are apples shaped like animals, Cathead (1600s), Crow Egg (1832), and Sheep’s Nose (1700s).

Underscoring their breadth of flavors, there are apples masquerading as other fruits: Winter Banana (1876), Melon (1845), Chenango Strawberry (1800s), Pumpkin Sweet (1830s), and Pitmaston Pineapple (1780s), not to mention D’Arby Spice (1785).

Mother apple, also known as Queen Anne, was discovered in Bolton, Massachusetts, some time before 1845. (Russell Steven Powell photo)
Mother apple, also known as Queen Anne, was discovered in Bolton, Massachusetts, some time before 1845. (Russell Steven Powell)

Some apples are regal, like Royal Gala (1970s), Duchess of Oldenburg (age unknown), King of Tompkins County (late 1700s), and Lady (1600s or earlier). Others are more prosaic, closer to home: Grandmother (also known as Aunt Dorcas, early 1800s), Granny Smith (1860s), and Aunt Hannah (early 1800s).

One apple appeals to both royals and commoners: Mother (pre-1845) was also known as Queen Anne.

Apples are wholesome and pious. There is a Methodist (1840s), Minister (1838), Priest’s Sweet (pre-1850), and Deacon Jones (late 1800s).

But be careful cutting your teeth on a Rock (1840s) or a Stone (1836).

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WHY ALL THE FUSS over a piece of fruit? What explains the apple’s deep hold on us? Beautiful and diverse as they are, apples are about more than good looks:

Apples work on all of the senses, close up and far away. Few sights are as breathtaking as an orchard teeming with apples in the fall, or covered in blossoms in spring. An apple’s perfume adds to its appeal, and its characteristic crunch is central to the experience of eating one. An apple’s distinctive size, shape, and texture can best be appreciated by touch.

Apples are part of our diets year-round. They are served at breakfast, lunch, or dinner, in salads or sandwiches, with entrees or as dessert. Apples can be dried or made into butter, and their juice can be fermented into hard cider, distilled into brandy or vinegar. They are equally good eaten fresh or cooked.

Apples pair well with almost any other food, sweet or savory, from pears to pork to peanut butter. An apple pie may include a handful of cranberries or raisins, be topped with pecans, or served with cheddar cheese or ice cream. Apples mingle with mayonnaise in Waldorf salad, and mustard in an open-face sandwich of sourdough, cheese, and onion.

Apples are convenient, ideal for snacking. They fit easily in one’s pocket or hand, yet when bitten into they burst with juice.

The nearly universal appeal of apples is enhanced by the fact that they can thrive in almost any climate or soil, except for the tropics. Henry David Thoreau encountered low-growing orchards in the harsh winds and sand of Cape Cod; the coastal town of Old Orchard Beach, Maine, was named for its once-prominent apple trees.

Apples are nutritious, although in this they are not unique among fruits and vegetables. But apples are low in calories, and contain phytonutrients and polyphenols that help reduce the risk of certain cancers and are central to maintaining good health.

Eating two apples a day can cut the risk of stroke by nearly one-third. Fresh apples keep teeth clean and massage the gums. Apples contain pectin, a soluble fiber that encourages beneficial bacteria to grow in the digestive tract.

Eaten before exercise, apples can even increase endurance. Quercetin, a polyphenol found in apples, makes oxygen more available in the lungs.

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THEIR INCREDIBLE diversity in shape, color, texture, and flavor; their unparalleled versatility, healthful qualities, wide availability, and extraordinary beauty all contribute to apples’ iconic status. Apples tell us something about who we are as well.


  • Charles Lawrence

    I have a farm in the Northeast Kingdom that dates back to late 1700s and have plenty of old apple trees that have some potential. One in particular I’d like you to see.
    If you give me your address I will send one to you.

    • Russell Powell

      Nice to hear from you, and it sound intriguing! You can send apples to me at 8 Elm St., Hatfield, MA 01038. I will do my best to steer you in the right direction!