Op-Ed: The Apple of New York’s Eye

Erik Baard, along with a coalition of green groups, including New York Restoration Project, planted 50 endangered Malus besieversii apple trees on Randall's Island on Wednesday. Baard is the founder of the Newtown Pippin Restoration and Celebration. Photo courtesy of Gil Lopez.

For years I’ve taken special pleasure in discovering fruiting trees in the city, from seductive yuzu to repellent gingko. I can imagine nothing more comforting yet exhilarating in our gray urban landscape. My 40th birthday gift to myself three years ago widens the circle of this joy; I started a project to plant local heirloom and ancestral Kazakh (as in from the Republic of Kazakhstan in Central Asia) apple trees in our public spaces.

The Newtown Pippin Restoration and Celebration centers on our local heirloom apple, first grown in what’s known today as Elmhurst, Queens. The sweet, tart, crisp and yellow-green Newtown Pippin was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and the family of Rufus King. Benjamin Franklin brought them to England. Though a Queens native, I first learned about this fruit in 2005 while researching the blighted Newtown Creek, a new Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site.

I was determined to plant a small “Founding Fathers Grove” in Long Island City, at the mouth of the Newtown Creek. This handful of trees was to remind locals of how verdant the waterway’s banks once were and to inspire a resurrection. I received letters of support from Monticello and Mount Vernon, my community board’s environmental committee and other community leaders.

I failed. And I’m grateful.

My failure, for now, to plant on the polluted and suspended-by-development shores of the Newtown Creek forced me to stretch my imagination. I found allies in the New York Restoration Project and Green Apple Cleaners, which have sponsored my sapling purchases, and I was offered a discount by Cummins Nursery in Ithaca, N.Y. Since 2008 we’ve planted hundreds of Newtown Pippins and other heirlooms (with the modern exception of honeycrisps, affectionately known by educators as “apple crack” for its kid appeal) in all five boroughs. Public schools, historic houses, community gardens and farms, youth service centers, houses of worship, hospitals, museums and botanical gardens now share our apple saplings.

While I shed my fixation on one site, I also shed my fixation on one apple. Further research, especially reading Michael Pollan’s works, introduced me to the wild, ancestral apple forests of Kazakhstan. There, on the lower Tian Shan (“celestial” or “heavenly”) mountains, the apple has evolved for millions of years. Kazakhs rightly boast of being the homeland of apples and nowhere in the world will you find a greater diversity of Malus sieversii, the forbearer of all the varieties on our store shelves and in GrowNYC Greenmarkets.

Apples from the USDA's orchard gene bank in Geneva, NY. These apples were grown from seeds taken from the Kazakh forest. Photo courtesy of the USDA.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains a gene bank, or germplasm, orchard in Geneva, N.Y., of grafts and seeds taken from the Kazakh forests. I lobbied researchers with the department and its Cornell University partners for a graft that Cummins Nursery could grow into a sapling. My thought was to plant a Newtown Pippin and a Malus sieversii side by side to symbolize the cross-pollination between world immigrant roots and local heritage that is our unique cosmopolitanism. NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe proposed the rooftop of his agency’s Arsenal headquarters in Central Park as the location.

I was stunned when Cummins Nursery relayed the word that instead we would receive hundreds of Kazakh grafted saplings in 12 varieties chosen by the USDA for size, taste and natural disease resistance.

On Wednesday, we planted these future fruiting giants — they might reach 30 feet tall — with the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation, the U.S. and Kazakh U.N. Missions, students from Harlem’s Renaissance Charter School for Innovation and First Deputy Parks Commissioner Liam Kavanagh at Hellgate Field on Randall’s Island, where some of our 50 previously planted heirloom saplings already have borne fruit.

Greenery apparently alleviates ADHD and antisocial behaviors. An evolutionary psychologist might argue that cities stress us because we’re designed to seek fertility. Stress hormones would have compelled our ancestors to trudge beyond stark canyons and stony flats until they came upon lush valleys and oases. They crossed continents, generation by generation, in the quest. One can only imagine the wonderment our ancestors felt when they wandered long out of Africa and into slopes forested with this generous fruit. Yet we settled descendents have built ourselves into barrenness. Worse, we’ve built our poor into it without the luxury of frequent escapes. Randall’s Island Park is walking distance over bridges from the South Bronx, East Harlem and the western shore of Queens, where the largest housing project in North America, the Queensbridge Houses, sits in a row with the Astoria Houses and Ravenswood Houses.

In his 1916 book, “Under the Apple-Trees,” John Burroughs wrote, “There are few places on the farm where there is so much live natural history to be gathered as in the orchard. All the wild creatures seem to feel the friendly and congenial atmosphere of the orchard.” I hope we urban wildlings, living in luxury towers and housing projects above the apple trees we’ve planted, are too so welcomed and soothed.

Erik Baard is a native New Yorker who founded the LIC Community Boathouse, City of Water Day and the Newtown Pippin Restoration and Celebration. He has written for many publications, including the New Yorker, New York Times, Village Voice and Wall Street Journal. He is I Love New York’s 2011 “Greenest New Yorker.”

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