Hamilton Apple Cultivar Information

When writing yesterday about grafting baby apple trees and listing the names of the cultivars, I did not have information about the Hamilton apple. The scion wood that I got a few years ago to start a Hamilton tree on Burnett Urban Farm was from Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa.

I wrote to SSE customer support and learned that the organization had gotten its Hamilton scion wood from the USDA. Am not sure if SSE ever grew a Hamilton tree.

Customer service did send a link to information on the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System.

A donor from British Columbia, Canada, gave Hamilton scion wood to the NPGS in 1987. The site describes the cultivar:

Fruit: size medium to large; shape intermediate to flat, rectangular, convex; not or slightly ribbed; skin yellow marbled and flecked with carmine, dotted with yellow; flesh tender, yellowish; flavor sweet subacid; harvest season mid to late.

What was even more interesting, though, is what the NPGS site said about people having access to the plant materials in its collection.

NPGS germplasm is not available for individual, home, or community gardening, or for home schooling or K-12 public or private school projects.

That’s understandable in some ways but a bummer.

A video about the work of the NPGS was even more intriguing. Note that one of the several NPGS research centers is located in Ames. David Brenner, an Ames friend of mine, who others of you may know, had a cameo role in the video. David works for the ISU Plant Introduction Station (a part of the USDA Agricultural Research Service). His specialties lie more with grains such as amaranth than fruit. I have heard him tell about his adventures in remote areas of other countries to obtain rare, and endangered, seeds. I have often thought of him as the Indiana Jones of botany.

When I tell people about my apple tree grafting projects, I am often asked why a person could not simply start new trees from seeds. Well, the answer is a long one that I do not fully understand. A good place to begin learning is the chapter about apples in Michael Pollan’s book, The Botany of Desire.

A documentary film based on The Botany of Desire premiered on PBS in October 2009.

With so many of my pursuits in life, asking a few questions on a new topic leads to learning much more knowledge than I can fathom or more than I am willing to study in depth. Yet the process of pursuing answers to those questions leads to more curiosity.

One example. I have been discerning the future of my farm land. It is mainly a typical farm field (some 300 acres) along a drainage ditch (Lizard Creek). Part of its uniqueness lies in the fact that my tenant is now farming it with organic practices. Another unique feature is that in the very center of the section (a section being one square mile) there is a grove in somewhat of a navel along the creek that I have only once explored and did so superficially. I have learned, however, that the grove is what remains of a late 19th Century farmstead, known as the Eral homeplace.

This winter, I wanted simply to learn which Eral family had settled the site and some of their story. Pursuit of that information took me to learning more about the lineage of that Pocahontas County land from when the U.S. government pushed out the indigenous people and gave whole sections of the countryside to the railroad corporations to re-sell the land to raise funds to build the rail lines. Often, those parcels were bought by speculators and developers, some who never moved to Iowa. Then eventually settlers such as the Eral family, many other Bohemian families, my Gunderson (Norwegian) ancestors, and folks of other northern European nationalities settled the area.

Tracing an even later phase of that land ownership legacy was just about as difficult. Fortunately, there are a few more documents and data available on-line and through researching my land abstract than were available for those earlier phases of ownership.

I learned more about my Gunderson ancestors, their acquisition of land, their wills, and a slew of complicated transactions/transfers so that eventually my five siblings and I have parcels of land, each in our own names and not part of some farm corporation.

All that land research opened new questions and revealed some answers. Much is complex that it is beyond my comprehension. Much shows capitalism of land ownership and the trend to fewer but much larger farms owned more by the wealthy than by small and medium-sized farmers. I want to learn more, but I also have taken a break.

So now, in my simple desire to learn more about that Hamilton apple cultivar and to be able to answer questions about why a person can’t just start a new tree from seed, my curiosity is tweaked in new ways. I want to watch that video about the work of the National Plant Germplasm System. I want to watch the PBS video based on Michael Pollan’s book.

I feel so very fortunate to have friends who are apple experts, including Tom Wahl and Kathy Dice of Red Fern Farm in southeast Iowa, Steve Carlson of Practical Farmers of Iowa, Steven and Ethy Cannon who work with plant genetics at Iowa State University but have their own urban orchard in Ames, Dean and Judy Henry of The Berry Patch Farm in Nevada (Iowa), and Brandon Carpenter of the ISU Horticulture Station.

For sure, I am also going to look for educational or documentary videos that show not only the history of apples but the evolution in technology for propagating apple trees. Brandon has told me some about what is now possible. After the derecho storm of a few years ago damaged many of the trees at the Horticulture Station, he and his staff sent scion wood from their trees to a company that specializes in mass-producing (massive-grafting) projects who provide the station with new trees. Not sure the number. Perhaps a thousand.

My bias is that there is something wholesome and satisfying, if not virtuous, about carrying on the heritage of some of the older cultivars and to be able to do so rather primitively.  I would prefer a Wealthy, Sweet 16, Hamilton, or Razor Russet from my yard over a storebought Honey Crisp or Cosmic Crisp. Yet, it seems important to honor the work of the many scientists such as those working at the NPGS and at what many call the ISU Hort Farm. It is good, also, to show some appreciation for companies such as Rain Tree Nursery in Washington State who do a great job of growing and selling rootstock. I could not do what I do in terms of grafting without having a source for that kind of wood.

Sometimes people say I am like Johnny Appleseed. Well, once you read Michael Pollan’s chapter about the man, you will get a whole new understanding of who he was and realize that I am not at all like him. He had a key role in the development of the Northwest Territory (think the Ohio area and not the Oregon area). He sowed apple seeds at various locations. Those would grow into brambles with small fruit much different than apples we think of these days. There was no guarantee of the flavor of the apples, but that was not an important factor, considering that the apples were used to make cider. (Read the book to understand why.) And he was a real estate developer. (Again, read the book.)

If I remember correctly, he travelled by canoe along the rivers to areas not yet settled by northern Europeans and other white folk. I am not that kind of outdoor person, I don’t know my botany all that well, and I have never been much of an entrepreneur in terms of making money on my creative efforts.