The Golden Age of Apples in the South

The Golden Age of Apples in the South

Lee Calhoun, author of Old Southern Apples, referred to the period from 1840 to 1900 as the “golden age of apples in the South;" stating that, “during these years there was a serious crusade to make the South a major commercial apple-growing area using apple varieties adapted to southern soils and climate.”

Several people were significant to the South’s commercialization of apples. Between 1836 and 1839, the

map of the southeastern quarter of the United States with routes of Indian removal indicated
Map of the Trail of Tears

United States forced the Cherokee Nation to move from their lands in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama to the Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. Jarvis Van Buren (1801-1885), a house builder and nurseryman from Georgia, went through a number of the seedling orchards the Cherokee had to leave behind.  He quickly realized that many of the apples contained two qualities rarely found together in the fruit – superior flavor and outstanding keeping ability. He was certain that these apples could form a firm foundation on which to start successful southern commercial orchards. The one obstacle left to overcome was a lack of good transportation to market. 

Mr. Van Buren went on to found his own orchard and Gloaming Nursery, as well as a pomological society. Throughout his life he extolled southern apples, both in lectures and in northern and southern publications; successively bringing them to the attention of the nation. Before, very little attention had been paid to southern apple varieties.  As evidence, in 1845, A. J. Downing’s Fruits and Fruit Trees of America, listed only one southern apple.

In the mountains of western North Carolina, in Macon County, Silas McDowell (1795-1879) started an orchard from scionwood found in the area. His orchard contained 600 apple trees, enabling him to sell fruit and grafted trees. One of his main contributions to southern pomology and fruit growers was his writings on temperature inversion and its relationship to topography. This would be of immense help to growers seeking to grow a success crop for market.

Vintage apple nursery catalog page with a line drawing of an apple
A page from an early J. Van
Lindley Nursery Catalog

By the 1850s, several southern nurseries had come to the forefront because of their size. Each listed a large number of apple cultivars in its catalog. Lindley’s Nursery in Greensboro, North Carolina, listed 169 apple cultivars in its 1853 catalog. The Franklin Davis Nursery in Richmond and Baltimore had over 300 apple cultivars in its 1858 catalog. The Fruitlands Nursery in Augusta, Georgia, listed over 200 cultivars in its 1861 catalog. The Pomaria Nursery in South Carolina had 500 apple cultivars in its orchard in 1860, of which 300 were of southern origin. Finally, the Forest Nursery of Todd County, Kentucky listed 373 apple cultivars in its 1870 catalog. In addition to all these major nurseries, there were around twenty lesser nurseries throughout the South.

Joshua Lindley, Franklin Davis, and Prosper Jules Berckmans (Fruitlands Nursery) made major contributions to southern pomology through the extensive selection of southern apple varieties they sold and their profound belief that the South could become a major fruit-producing area. This belief was promoted through their nursery catalogs and in articles they wrote for periodicals.

Most southern nurseries, large and small alike, used traveling salesmen called tree peddlers to sell their nursery stock. These peddlers visited even isolated farms by horseback or wagon touting the advantages of grafted fruit trees and enticing customers using color lithographed pictures in salesmen’s books. The net result was that by 1860 few seedling trees were being planted in the South, and new farm orchards were established using grafted trees, mainly of favored and adapted southern cultivars.

Commercial orchards in the South lacked one essential ingredient – cheap, reliable and fast transportation to distant markets. This deficiency was solved in the 1880s when the railroad expanded into the Appalachian Mountains and Arkansas. The coming of the railroad set the stage for a thirty-year “apple boom” in the South, the likes of which will never again be seen.

This information is excerpted from:

Calhoun, Creighton Lee. Old Southern Apples. United States: McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company, 1995.

Calhoun, Creighton Lee. Old Southern Apples: A Comprehensive History and Description of Varieties for Collectors, Growers, and Fruit Enthusiasts, 2nd Edition. United States: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011.