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Annie Snider/MEDILL

Gene Yale grows a minature orchard of rare apple trees in his Skokie backyard.

Skokie’s Johnny Appleseed

by Annie Snider
Nov 10, 2009


Annie Snider/MEDILL

One of the things that can keep a delicious apple from popularity is a rough, dark skin quality called russeting.


Annie Snider/MEDILL

Yale keeps a meticulous plan of his orchard's layout.  “In case anyone comes in and plays with my signs, I could put them all back,” he said.

From the months of August to November, visitors to Gene Yale’s Skokie home walk out the door with overflowing bags of apples. The fruits aren’t your typical Red Delicious or Fuji, though, but striped and lopsided apples with names such as Virginia Beauty, Hudson’s Golden Gem, Scarlett O’Hara, and Bramley’s Seedling.

Yale, a 79-year-old retired salesman, has been growing dwarf apple trees in his 2,400 square foot suburban backyard for 40 years. This year his miniature orchard holds 178 trees. Old varieties and modern species intermingle in 19 tight, precise rows that burst into bright blossom in the spring and become dense with fruit in the fall.

“It started out as a hobby that went wrong,” Yale said. “We had an apple and a cherry tree in our yard when I was growing up on the South Side, and as the eldest boy I laid claim to the apple tree because it was the best for climbing.”

When Yale and his wife moved to the suburbs two decades later, Yale remembered his childhood tree and decided to try growing one himself.

“I started out like everyone else with the Red Delicious and the Golden Delicious,” he said. “After a few years I got Jonathans and MacIntosh, and then every year I’d just add more.”

Yale uses a special rootstock that keeps the trees to about 3 feet tall while still producing full-sized fruit.

Over the years, Yale discovered fruits with much more complex flavors than the ones in the grocery store.

“What makes this famous is, like fine wine, when you bite into the apple it gives a nice little aftertaste,” Yale said, pointing to a three-foot tall Cox’s Orange Pippin.

Fruits with unusual flavor palates such as the Cox’s Orange Pippin have become extremely rare, according to Dave Snyder, who founded the Chicago Rarities Orchard Project with the mission of preserving and popularizing classic fruit varieties.

“One hundred years ago there were 15,000 varieties of apples alone, in America alone,” said Snyder. “Today, 90 percent of those have gone extinct – over 90 percent. [Researchers] think there’s about 1,200 of those original 15,000 varieties that are surviving.”

Anyone who has read Michael Pollan’s “Botany of Desire” will recognize some of the names on the signs planted next to Yale’s trees. Esopus Spitzenberg is the apple Thomas Jefferson grew and prized at Monticello. Hawkeye, which won an 1893 contest at the Stark Brothers Nursery in Louisiana, Mo., is the apple that eventually became the Red Delicious.

Apples are extreme heterozygotes, which means that seedlings don’t inherit their DNA directly from their parents. You can plant the seed of a Granny Smith apple, but the tree that grows from it will not be a Granny Smith, and more likely than not will be inedible.

Two hundred years ago, people didn’t grow apples for eating or cooking the way they do today. When John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, planted hundreds of thousands of apple trees in the Midwest, the vast majority of the fruit would have been too bitter to eat, but perfect for fermenting and drinking as applejack.

Today, apple farmers perpetuate popular apples such as the Granny Smith tree by taking a piece of wood from an adult Granny Smith tree and attaching it to root stock in a process called grafting. A new tree, true to the original Granny Smith, then grows from that small piece of scion wood.

But if a tree dies without being grafted, that variety is lost forever.

“You know the Old Masters who painted apples in bowls of fruits?” asks Yale. “A lot of those aren’t in existence. There are many apples that have disappeared completely.”

Yale gets much of his scion wood for classic varieties from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Plant Genetics Research Unit in Geneva, N.Y. The unit serves as a veritable living library of apples from around the world, preserving more than 2,500 domesticated varieties and hundreds of wild samples. It makes scion wood available for free to hobbyists like Yale twice a year.

But unlike Snyder, Yale is on no particular mission to preserve old varieties. He chooses his apples for hardiness and taste, not history.

“If they’re good tasting, whether they’re old or not, they should be preserved,” he said.

Which is why Yale also grows new varieties of apples developed by university researchers around the world.

“We went up to Minnesota a few years ago and heard the people who invented the famous Honeycrisp, the apple that crunches so loud it’s almost deafening,” he said.

Yale gets a kick out of guessing which of the new varieties will take off. The twinkle in his eye when he talks about one of his favorite new apples – the University of Minnesota’s Snowsweet – looks very much like that of a boy who has just spotted a good climbing tree.

It’s the challenge and creativity of the project that capture Yale’s attention. “I get my thrill in growing ‘em,” he said, “I very rarely eat an apple.”