Floyd County is mountain apple country. There are commercial family-run orchards, farm orchards, trees in backyards, trees along the Blue Ridge Parkway (which the Parkway Service allows to be picked), and random apple and crab apple trees along the roadsides that just happen to have sprung up. And there are abandoned orchards. If you explore the back roads and "goat paths" of Floyd (and most of the roads here are back roads) you'll come across long abandoned homesteads with decrepit farm houses and outbuildings, or a lone fireplace and chimney standing in a pasture. In the spring some of these are amazing, the houses surrounded by blooms of tulips and daffodils, old-fashioned peonies and lilacs, and later poppies and roses. But, in the spring, if you look beyond the houses and outbuildings, you'll spot trees in bloom. Fruit trees covered in pinkish flowers. Apples.
Last September our neighbor Bill, who built our house, told me about this orchard on the land of a client that he was constructing a home for. His client had bought a beautiful piece of land that had an 85 year old apple orchard that had not been tended in over 12 years. Bill said it was loaded with fruit and the owner had no idea what to do with it all beyond eating apples out of hand and would probably allow me to pick all I wanted. So off we went.
The orchard turned out to be easily accessible, a short mile off the main road and a pretty drive up a dirt lane. As we topped the last hill the site came into view and was breathtaking. The land unrolled to reveal a barn and pasture with horses, the new house under construction, and behind and above the house, the old orchard. Rows and rows of trees.
Tom greeted us and then took me up to the orchard. As we got closer the sight took my breath away. My jaw dropped. There must have been at least a hundred trees of all varieties simply dripping with fruit! So much fruit that while the trees were still loaded, the ground was rolling with apples! As we turned an outside corner of the orchard, he showed me where he had to remove a half an acre of trees to install his geothermal heating system. Honestly, the loss of those trees might be mourned but the orchard is planted so densely that the new open area will probably be beneficial to the remaining trees in terms of light, air circulation and ease of access. Tom invited me to pick all I wanted. I drove him back to the house and headed back.
I started picking Romes. From waist height. The branches were so heavy that they were bent over in danger of snapping from the load. I learned quickly to keep my head back and be wary as the branches snapped back into position, relieved of their burdens. You could almost hear them sigh with pleasure. I moved on to a green and red striped variety that may have been Northern Spy. Then I found Staymens. I began to realize that the apples in this orchard were likely all heritage varieties given its age. I drove the truck to the upper part of the orchard to see what I might find there. Right off the bat I spotted Golden Delicious. These must have been the sweet yellow apples Tom had been raving about because the easy to reach ones were gone. I backed the truck under the limbs and picked while standing in the bed. No need for the ladder yet! I spotted another yellow apple that may have been a Northwest Greening. I picked varieties I couldn't identify, taking a bite to taste and saying, "That's good, we'll have some of those!"
But then I found them. My most favorite apple, the Arkansas Black. The skin of an Arkansas Black is a deep, deep red, so dark it earns its name. It's a crisp-fleshed apple and when you bite into it there's a snap, a flood of tart-sweet juice, and a floral aroma. Look at the spot you've just bit and the flesh is pure white. Now look at the apple as a whole; the deep dark blood red skin, the startlingly white flesh, the ethereal smell of flowers and you know, you just know, that this is the apple the evil queen tempted Snow White with. That's the name I gave them years ago before I knew what they were. Snow White Apples.
Arkansas Blacks are a great "keeping" apple meaning, if they're stored properly they'll last a long time in tip-top shape. I picked all I could reach and looked longingly at the rest. For the first time in my life I ate as many Arkansas Blacks as I wanted not having to dole them out and make the treat last. Sitting on the side of my truck, surveying the boxes and tubs filling it, I was in apple nirvana.
I thanked Tom for the bounty and received an invitation to come back and pick more. When I got home I called my friend Katey, a fellow gardener and preserver, and told her about my windfall. Four days later we were back at the orchard with her mother, car, my truck, and a gallon bag of dried apples for Tom. I laughed to see their reaction at their first sight of the orchard, knowing that their jaw-to-knee-faces were what I had done. We put down the back seat and loaded Katey's car to the gills. Then we loaded my truck. The half a load of apples left in the truck after dropping Katey's off, went over to Plenty!, the Floyd organization that delivers fresh produce to shut-ins and needy families in the county.
Michael hasn't seen the orchard yet. Snow is on the ground making access difficult in my little light weight truck. I have jars of all kinds of apple preserves I want to take out to Tom to thank him for allowing us to pick and deliver a bounty of apples to Plenty! as well as our pantry so I hope the snow melts soon.
I'm still eating Arkansas Blacks. And I can't wait until spring to see those trees in flower!