Early North Carolina Nurseries

Early North Carolina Nurseries

As early settlers to Piedmont North Carolina discovered, growing apple trees from seeds was a gamble, for seedling trees reverted to ancestral varieties.  Most apple trees farmers grew from seed would have been used for cider or animal feed.  Grafting assured the orchardist that a tree would produce a desired variety.  However, grafting was not widely practiced in Colonial America.  Most grafted trees came from England and were expensive, well beyond the means of most small landowners. In addition, many English apples were not suited to the climate of North Carolina.       

The most common method used to propagate a particular apple in eighteenth century North Carolina was to cut off and replant a root sprout.  When a tree happened to produce a desirable fruit its root sprouts, which would remain true to the mother tree, were traded among neighbors.  In this way varieties developed locally, producing apples suitable for cooking, drying, or keeping through the winter.  When a farmer moved he took with him the root sprouts of his favorite apple trees.  Eighteenth century seedling orchards were replaced by the end of the century with trees grown from root sprouts.

Seedling nurseries in coastal Virginia and South Carolina were in operation as early as 1750, but it was not until 1806 that an apple nursery came to North Carolina.  The Tarheel State’s earliest documented nurseries were owned and operated by Quakers. Abijah Pinson, a Quaker living in Westfield in Surry County opened the state’s first nursery. It was made possible through the hard work of Mr. Pinson and fellow Quaker Anne Matthews Jessup.

Anne Jessup was born in Pennsylvania in 1738. She settled in  North Carolina and on September 28, 1765, the New Garden Monthly Meeting of Guilford County, NC recorded her as a Quaker Minister   She married her second husband, Thomas Jessup, Jr., from Orange County, NC in 1766.  In 1790, several years after her husband’s death, Anne visited her daughter’s family in Glasgow, Scotland then went on to travel extensively throughout England for a period of two years. An avid horticulturist, she gathered cuttings from fruit trees, as well as seeds and roots from vegetables, flowers and alfalfa.  In 1792 she returned to New Garden and a year later hired Abijah Pinson to work with her to graft the fruit tree scionwood from her collection onto seedling rootstocks and to help plant her seeds and roots.

In 1806, Pinson moved to Westfield where he cleared a patch of land of its native trees and planted yearling trees from Anne Jessup’s collection. By the following autumn, the trees were well established and they were offered for sale. Fortunately for American agriculture, Pinson also grafted trees from what were considered some of the very best American apple varieties. Most of the apples in his catalog were American varieties including but not limited to Red Pippin, Limbertwig, Striped Horse, Golden Russet, Vandiver, and White Winter Pearmain. From 1820-1826, Pinson’s apple trees were spread to Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri due to the massive migration of people from North Carolina to the west. 

By the 1850s there were a number of small apple nurseries operating throughout North Carolina.  “Tree peddlers,” traveling salesmen employed by the nurseries, called on individual farmers extolling the virtues of grafted trees and hardy stock.  The tree peddlers would share their nursery’s catalog and display lithographs to entice prospective buyers.  Some of the larger nurseries offered as many as 300 varieties of apples.  By the 1860s virtually all of the farm orchards in North Carolina had been planted with grafted trees, replacing the earlier orchards grown from root sprouts.

In 1874, N. W. Craft opened his Cedar Cove Nursery in the Yadkin County community of Red Plains. By the turn of the twentieth century Cedar Cove had grown to be one of the largest nurseries in North Carolina, offering more than 75,000 fruit trees, vines, and other plants, including sixty varieties of apple trees.