Millions of Blossoms

04/22/2019

Each spring the apple orchards of Wayne County are alive with flowers

Story and photos by Derek Doeffinger

Perhaps the most exhilarating and underestimated vista in the greater Finger Lakes is the explosion of millions of apple blossoms in Wayne county. For almost two weeks in mid-to-late May, over 20,000 acres of apple trees unleash an impressionistic and pointillistic canopy of petals dancing from horizon to horizon; and in some areas the clouds of petals stretch gloriously to the sun-spangled waters of Lake Ontario.

The greatest concentration of the orchards fits into a rectangle bordered by Rt. 104 on the south, Lake Road on the north, Rt. 21 on the west, and Rt. 14 on the east. The most direct and scenic passage through orchard country is the section of Lake Road that runs from Pultneyville to Sodus Point.

But don’t let the ease of cruising along Lake Road stop you from exploring the many side roads or going outside the “dotted lines.” Wayne county tourism director Christine Worth raves about the orchard scenery around Chimney Bluffs and the hilly orchards just north of Newark.

Fourth generation apple grower Mark Lagoner, whose orchards and farm market stand at the corner of Lake Road and Lake Street in Williamson, suggests “Take almost any side road in orchard country and you will find an impressive view of the blossoms.”

Standing in an orchard with tens of thousands of blossoms shimmering overhead can be breathtaking; studying a single tree up close can be enlightening. Stand before an ancient tree and feel how its gnarled, split and twisted limbs not only still strive for the sky but relentlessly urge forth thousands of blossoms. The life force to prolong and propagate is powerful and palpable.

 And fascinating. For behind every apple tree you see in the orchard are skeletons in its closet. Let’s begin with the tree itself.  Every apple tree has taken drastic steps to avoid the genetic and possibly fatal pitfalls of incest. Furthermore, every orchard apple tree hides a dual, indeed, a split, personality. And finally, through no fault of its own, the apple has been exploited in tales biblical, fairy, and tall.

To avoid agricultural incest, apple trees use the process of cross-pollination. That means they can “mate” (use pollen) only with a different variety of apple tree. McIntosh hooking up with McIntosh or an Ida Red with an Ida Red is not only a no-no but a biological impossibility. But unfortunately cross-pollination produces seeds that are like lottery numbers—no two are identical and the chance of a producing a tasty winner is slim.

Apple seeds can’t be used to plant an orchard but they can inspire an apple breeder. Enter an apple breeder like the down-to-earth Dr. Susan Brown of Cornell. She regularly cross pollinates two promising parent apple trees and plants thousands of the resultant seeds, and then waits four years with fingers crossed for the apples to be produced.

Then she tests them. She laughs. In this instance, testing them means tasting them. Each fall Susan and her research assistant Kevin Maloney bite into hundreds of apples and for many, they immediately spit them out like Snow White should have. “They’re spitters,” she explains, “Even in crosses of two high quality parents, there are “spitters,” or apples that are too acid, astringent or just unpleasant.”

In other words: Yuck.

But now and then they come across an apple with an ineffable sweetness, crispness, or delightful tartness. From apples like that she hopes to win the apple lottery. So far she’s had much success.

So what’s the solution to propagating good apples once they’re achieved by breeding? Grafting. Every apple tree in the orchard is actually two apple trees combined into one by grafting. It’s the art of simple tree surgery. Surprisingly, farmers figured out how to do it nearly three thousand years ago. From the tree that produces the type of apple you want, cut a young switch or a bud (the scion) and stick it into (and bind it to) a similarly notched niche of a young tree (the rootstock). Once this union heals, cut the tree off just above the bud; a two part tree is formed. The rootstock is chosen for how big a tree you want and for its resistance to diseases. It exists almost solely as the root system. The upper graft (scion) forms nearly the whole visible tree and produces the apples.

Do this millions of times and you can make commercial orchards capable of consistently producing Macs, Ida Reds, Galas, and so on. The process is so successful that those of you who grow a backyard McIntosh tree have a tree that is genetically identical to the original found by John McIntosh on his Canadian farm in the early 1800s.

The final skeleton in the apple closet is the group of myths about apple trees. Did Newton really discover gravity by being bonked with an apple? Did Eve really seduce Adam with an apple? Did Johnny (Chapman) Appleseed spread good apples? And was William Tell forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head in 1307 to start the Swiss revolution? No. No. Not likely. And no. Since it’s a fairy tale, I guess Snow White’s deep sleep from the bite of a poisonous apple is true—sort of.

Dr. Brown enjoys blossoms but she’s spent her whole career developing apples, not blossoms. In our discussion she insisted on encouraging people to return to the orchards at harvest time. And the next time you’re apple shopping look for two of the new apples she co-developed: the Rubyfrost, customized for and grown only in New York, and the Snapdragon. Both are definitely “chewers.”

But for now, head up to the orchards between May 15-23 (Williamson Apple Festival is May 16-19) so you can stand under clouds of petals. And if you want to feel those petals rain down on you, come at the end of bloom season and stand under a petaled tree until a strong breeze hits. If you’re lucky, you’ll be awash in a shimmering shower of petals fluttering down on your head. A truly unique feeling.

 


When Are They Blooming?

Visit FingerLakesMagazine.com and sign up for the free weekly e-newsletter. We will inform readers in early May when the apple trees are blooming north of Route 104.