Cultivate

The Odd History of the Arkansas Black Apple

nick musica
Nov 30, 2020 - 4 minutes read

From Snow White to Adam and Eve, the apple has historically been the bearer of bad luck – and with its deep, dark hue, the Arkansas Black may look like the physical manifestation of that doom.

But it’s not all bad! This mysterious fruit actually has quite a sweet side, and a past that’s not nearly as dark as its skin.

Strange Fruit

Despite being home to some of the world’s most fertile soil, North America has very few native fruits – and the apple is no exception.

It took boatfuls of European travelers to bring the sweet treats to Western shores – though once the fruit arrived, it put down roots quickly, and there was no turning back.

Apples exploded in popularity throughout the colonies, with farmers, gardeners and Johnny Appleseed himself dedicated to increasing the fruit’s footprint. But it could’ve only been Mother Nature who would come up with something as mysteriously beautiful as the Arkansas Black.

The piece of produce is technically an heirloom variety, which means its seeds were first pollinated by wind, insects and other animals, as opposed to humans attempting to intentionally hybridize several different species of the plant.

What the heirloom process usually culminates in is fruits that look a little wonky – or, at least, a little different than normal. And somewhere around the mid-1800s, one of those strange apples caught the eye of an Arkansas farmer, in the town of Bentonville.

Apple trees were popular parts of many gardens across the Natural State (whose official state flower is actually the apple blossom), and it wasn’t uncommon for regular people to plant entire orchards in their yards. So there were plenty of opportunities for just the right kind of genes to meet just the right kind of circumstances.

Still, once the Arkansas Black Apple was discovered, we humans took the idea and ran with it, cultivating seeds and caring for the plants just right in order to intentionally encourage the dark beauties to blossom.

Moth-Balled

The trend started in Bentonville, then rippled out to Benton County, and, before long, Arkansas Black Apples were in demand nearly everywhere.

Making the fruit so popular no doubt was its captivating beauty: The skin is a decadent, deeply dark reddish purple unlike nearly any other color on earth.

And the people of Arkansas couldn’t get enough. By 1900, nearly 40,000 acres across the state were dedicated to apple orchards, and it’s estimated that, of that vast number of trees, 15-20 percent were producing Arkansas Blacks.

But what the Earth giveth, the Earth can also taketh away, a lesson black apple lovers learned the hard way.

By the 1930s, the Arkansas Black was all but extinct. A trifecta of terribleness added up to nearly do the apple in: A bad bacterial blight had led to the destruction of a number of crops; and a staggering moth infestation took care of nearly all the rest, with the creatures noshing on and nesting in the fruit, making them all but inedible.

The final straw was a bit more man-made. The economic pressures of the Great Depression led to the downsizing of farming everywhere – and even, in some cases, the intentional destruction of hundreds of pounds of food, destroyed in order to help keep inflation in check.

All told, the factors led to a blow that the state still hasn’t fully recovered from. Today, there are under 200 official apple growers in Arkansas, and it’s estimated that less than five percent of their yields consist of Arkansas Black apples.

Branching Out

But all that really means is that the fruit is due for a comeback.

Indeed, Arkansas Blacks are slowly ticking back up in popularity, saved, once again, by their otherworldly beauty.

For what it’s worth, the apples also taste the beans, but only for those who truly practice the virtue of patience.

Arkansas Blacks are not friendly when first picked off the tree, with a fresh example tasting tough, sour and overwhelmingly astringent. That’s thanks, in part, to the fruit’s exceptionally thick skin, which prevents much of its flesh from ripening well or turning tender.

Still, the same stubborn quality makes the apple a graceful ager, with the Arkansas Black comfortably able to last in (refrigerated) storage for up to four months. And like all the fine wines and wise people that came before them, the extra experience only makes the apples all the better.

An appropriately ripened Arkansas Black has a phenomenal taste – offering up a dreamy flavor pallet, with notes of cherry, cinnamon, coriander and vanilla. This lovely bite has made the apples a traditionally popular choice for baking, while today, new-age chefs have found renewed interest in the old-school fruit, using the Arkansas Black for everything from pie fillings to meat accompaniments to stars of modern-day charcuterie boards.

These black apples may have ushered in their own fair share of doom, but we hope they’re now well on their way to a fairytale ending.

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