By Charles Mitchell and reviewed by Gary Gray
I’ve been asked on several occasions about planting an heirloom fruit orchard on the grounds of Pioneer Park at the Lee County Historical Society in Loachapoka, Alabama. I have experience growing fruits on my nearby homestead and could probably develop a nice little demonstration orchard on the LCHS property. However, my concern is its historical authenticity. Did pioneers in Central Alabama have fruit orchards in the 1800s? I don’t know the answer. Undoubtedly, some homesteaders planted fruit trees but most of my readings about Alabama’s agricultural past suggest that fruit orchards were not a high priority with Alabama’s pioneers. Even into the 20th Century, most Alabama farmers were obsessed with producing the stables, cotton and corn and livestock. The commercial orchards that did exist were specialized such as some apples in North Alabama, peach orchards in Central Alabama, and satsuma oranges in South Alabama. Fresh fruits were seasonal and mostly collected from the wild e.g., dewberries and blackberries, wild huckleberries, plums, muscadine and possum grapes, wild persimmons, etc. By the early 20th Century, commercial nurseries began to offer improved and grafted tree fruits that would do well in the South. Some enthusiastic homesteaders planted apples and pears and improved plums around their backyard gardens strictly for local consumption. Along with these, some figs and pomegranates from the Mediterranean seemed to thrive in Alabama’s climate. Even today, one might find an old fig tree or a hardy pear tree growing near an old, abandoned house site in rural Alabama.
Peach. The peach has always been Alabama’s number one tree fruit in spite of the fact that we grow far less peaches than our neighbor, Georgia. Commercial peach production in Alabama can be traced back to the mid 1800s. Peaches really gained prominence by the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama:
The Alabama peach industry intensified with the arrival of Scandinavian immigrants Theodore Thorson and John Peterson, who established the settlement of Thorsby in 1895 in Chilton County. Peach trees were set as early as 1898, and the hilly landscape and climate seemed ideal for their cultivation. Although Georgian P.C. Smith was the first horticulturist to raise peaches commercially in Chilton County, it was the Scandinavians and other Thorsby growers who established a significant number of orchards, vineyards, and berry fields. Elberta was the variety of choice at the time, and Thorsby's farmers set between 135 and 170 trees on their 10-acre plots, netting about 75 cents per crate (slightly more than a present-day bushel).
Backyard peach production has always been a challenge in Alabama because of the disease and insect pressure on this fragile crop. Even today, a peach tree’s productive life is only about 11 years. There are no peaches at Pioneer Park because of the intensive pesticide spray program necessary to assure nice fruit.
Pears. The European pears e.g., ‘Bartlett’ types, that are so popular worldwide have never performed well in the heat and humidity of Alabama. Fire blight will usually kill them within a few years of planting. However, Alabama pioneers discovered that certain very hardy varieties could tolerate Alabama’s climate and produce an acceptable, hard pear that was perfect for preserving and canning. Most Alabama homesteads had one or more “hard” pear trees planted around the garden. Trees can live for decades and produce a crop of hard pears in late August and September in Central Alabama. These pears are the sources of pear preserves, canned pears, pear relish, pear pickles, dried pears and lots of other products that homemakers made from these heirloom pear trees that grow so well in Central Alabama. Two popular, heirloom varieties of grafted pears, ‘Keiffer’ and ‘Orient’, are planted at the rear of the McLain Garden at Pioneer Park. The round, Asian pears that have become popular during the last few decades were unknown to our ancestors but will grow in Alabama.
Apples. Most apples have a high chill requirement (1000+ chill hours below 40 degrees F) and perform best in colder regions of the country. However, there are many varieties of apples that will grow and produce in Central Alabama. Undoubtedly, our pioneer ancestors brought some of these trees with them from the Carolinas, Virginia, and Georgia when they moved into East Alabama. Gary Gray, a horticultural Extension agent in Chilton County, remembers that his grandmother who was the daughter of Rev. C.W. Walton, the Methodist minister who pastored at Notasulga around the 1920s, told him that she remembered that they grew “Horse” apples, also called “Yellow Horse”. Commercial production was never widespread but most homesteads had hardy apple trees near their gardens. Hardy crabapples, in particular, could be found growing wild throughout the South. I recall a crabapple tree on the playground behind my elementary school in West-central Alabama. Today, apples are a challenge to grow this far South. New insects such as Japanese beetles and diseases such as fire blight and bitter rot that thrive in our heat and humidity make backyard apple production very challenging in Central Alabama. There are no apples planted in Pioneer Park due to this increased pest pressure that our pioneer fathers did not have to deal with.
Possum Grapes and Muscadines. Viticulture (grape growing) never caught on in early Alabama. Alabama history tells the story of the aristocratic French exiles who settled present-day Demopolis with the intension of growing grapes and olives (“The Vine and Olive Colony”). The Colony failed. While we had our own native bunch grapes called possum grapes or fox grapes (Vitis aestivalis) by most Alabamians, the types used to make European and Californian wines (Vitis vinifera) and the fox grapes native to the northeastern U.S. (Vitis labrusca) just did not do well here in the Deep South. Wild muscadine grapes (Vitis rotundifolia) thrive. Why would our ancestors bother growing them when they grew so abundantly around the edges of the woods. In the early fall, these native grapes were used for homemade sweet wines, jams and jellies, and incredible muscadine pies and cobblers. A light-colored to bronze muscadine found in North Carolina was named ‘Scuppernong’. Because it was the first light-colored muscadine cultivated, the name ‘Scuppernong’ came to be used today by many Southerners to refer to any light-colored, bronze, or white muscadine. Breeding efforts since WWII have resulted in the release of some incredible new muscadine varieties and the expansion of the wine industry in the South. Four improved varieties are planted along the west side of the McLain Garden, ‘Cowart’, a black, heirloom variety used for jams and jellies, ‘Supreme’, a large, improved black variety, and two, large, bronze varieties, ‘Pam’ and ‘Sweet Jenny’.
Blackberries and dewberries. Why cultivate them when one could fill up a bucket from wild plants growing in ditches and abandoned fields all over Alabama? Dewberries grow along the ground and mature a few weeks earlier than blackberries. Blackberry thickets can be several feet high and almost impenetrable because of the stiff thorns. Blackberry or dewberry cobblers and ‘stir-rounds’ are a mainstay of Southern desserts. Raspberry, blackberry’s red, northern cousin, doesn’t do well in the Deep South. Today, most landowners consider bramble canes a weed and kill them to clean up pastures and woodlots, Most residents do not have access to the wild berries. The more productive, cultivated blackberries are the mainstay in supermarkets and roadside fruit stands. ‘Kiowa’, a large, productive blackberry variety that is just as thorny as its wild cousin, is planted along the east side of the McLain Garden. If the pioneers had access to some of the thornless blackberry varieties that we have today, they might have been more motivated to cultivate blackberries on the farm.
Blueberries. Fifty years ago, most Southerners had never picked a cultivated blueberry. The little wild ones found in the woods and meadows were called ‘huckleberries’. Blueberries were grown up north (mostly Vaccinium corymbosum, northern highbush) . Development of cultivated varieties of the native rabbiteye blueberry (Vaccinium ashei) has transformed blueberry consumption in the Deep South over the past 40 to 50 years. A selection of modern, named varieties are planted along the McLain Garden fence although they were never grown in 19th Century gardens.
Plums. Native plums grew all over Alabama and there are several species of native plums other than the widespread (Prunus americana). Like blackberries, there was little reason to cultivate them when thickets of juicy red and yellow plums grew everywhere. The sour, marble-sized fruit of what I think was wild Chickasaw plum (P. angustifolia) made the best jellies and plum sauces. The popular, cultivated prune plums from Europe (P. domestica) did not grow well in the mild climate of Alabama. Most of our cultivated plums today are crosses with the juicy, large Japanese plums (P. salicina). Cultivated plums have some of the same challenges as cultivated peaches because they are both stone fruits. The biggest problem of both wild and cultivated plums is the plum curculio. Today it’s hard to find many ripe, unsprayed plums that aren’t “wormy” because of this insect. Farmstead chickens and turkeys kept the curculio under control in grandpa’s backyard orchard.
Strawberries. In the early 20th century, commercial strawberries were more popular in Alabama than peaches. They were also easily grown in or near the backyard garden on a typical Alabama homestead. Strawberries offered a tasty treat in the early spring before any other fruit was available. Strawberries were usually planted in or near the family’s vegetable garden. Since we have no heirloom vegetable garden at Pioneer Park, there are no strawberries.
Figs. Figs are perhaps the easiest and most dependable fruit crop one can grow in the Deep South. That is why most homesteads in Central and South Alabama had figs. Several varieties of hardy figs will grow in Central Alabama but the standard variety is ‘brown turkey’, a medium size, purple fig that is used for preserves, jams, pickles, and dried figs. Many varieties, including ‘brown turkey’ may freeze during an unusually cold winter but they often will re-sprout from the roots and produce another small tree or bush within a year or two. Note that several varieties of figs are planted around the McLain Garden including ‘brown turkey.’
Pomegranates. I often hear comments like, “My grandparents used to have huge pomegranate bushes on their property but I cannot get them to grow.” It is true that Alabama homesteads often had nice, productive pomegranate bushes. These are difficult to find today. I’m told that certain soil-borne, root diseases have moved in which can be devastating to pomegranates, especially in wet weather. We have not been unable to get them to grow at Pioneer Park.
Persimmons. Wild, American persimmons grew everywhere and the fruit was plentiful. Every child growing up in rural Alabama had the experience, just once, of tasting an under-ripe, wild persimmon. However, once a hard freeze softens the pulpy fruit, the astringency disappears and the sweet flavor is remarkable. Our ancestors had to fight the raccoons, possums, and deer for a taste of this native fruit. Only recently have the large, non-astringent, Asian persimmons become popular in backyard orchards in the South.
Fruits you will not see at Pioneer Park. Raspberries, cherries, kiwis, bunch grapes, olives and citrus were not grown on 19th century homesteads in Central Alabama. We were either too far south or too far north or simply did not know about these fruits or didn’t have the time to cultivate them.