Last week’s Ladybug Blog extolled the historical, cultural, and culinary delights of pumpkin. It seems as though you can’t step foot into a grocery store, candle shop, or cafe without being inundated with products that revolve around pumpkin spice. As ubiquitous as the combination of cinnamon, clove, and allspice have been the past few years I remember a time when the flavor of early fall was apple; from cider and cider doughnuts to pies and apple butter.

Many a school field trip or family outing revolved around a trip to an orchard to pick one of the many varieties of apples available in New England and return home laden with bags of this versatile fruit. The pleasure of these adventures was increased if the destination also had a working cider press. That sweet/sour smell of the overripe apples being pressed says fall much in the same way that a freshly-cut fir tree hints that Christmas is on its way.

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Enjoying a visit to Easy Pickins Orchard in Enfield, CT

Apple orchards have been a part of Connecticut and New England since cultivated apples (Malus pumila also known as M. domestica) were brought here by the European settlers in the 17th century. The first recorded apple orchard was planted in 1625 by the Reverend William Blaxton in what is now Cumberland, Rhode Island. Reverend Buxton cultivated the Yellow Sweeting apple which later became known as the Rhode Island Greening, a cooking apple that has a greenish-yellow flesh. Before that only the small, sour, wild apples which we know as crabapples grew in North America. Crabapples are used as ornamental trees in landscapes and as they are heavy bloomers are great sources of pollen for cross-pollination in apple orchards, are a good source of pectin, and as a rootstock that provides cold-hardiness to domestic apples.

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The crabapple tree at our first home bloomed beautifully every Mother’s Day (1991)

The use of crabapple or other apple varieties as a rootstock in grafting is very important in modern orchard farming. Apple trees grown from seed do not grow true to their parent plant and can be anywhere from 12 to 36’ tall, features that are not conducive to consistent apple production and ease of harvest. Therefore, grafting, the technique that combines the beneficial traits of 2 or 3 apple varieties is greatly beneficial. In the simplest of terms, grafting is the procedure by which a scion (a piece of last year’s growth that has 2-3 buds) is cut from an existing tree of the desired apple variety.

The scion is inserted into the cambium (vascular) layer of the understock (rootstock) of another apple variety that may bring traits such as disease resistance, crotch strength, adaptability to heavier soil, a slow growth rate, adaptability to espalier training, or the above-mentioned cold-hardiness. The new graft is generally bound with tape and a grafting compound. Detailed information on grafting can be found in books or online.

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Espaliered apple trees

Cider apples are usually a combination of cultivars that are grown specifically for use in cider production to have higher sugar and tannin levels and are often more astringent than the eating and baking varieties. These qualities contribute to a final product that has a deeper flavor. Among cider apple varieties are some that are higher in sugar which causes their cider product to ferment resulting in hard cider. In fact, hard cider was an important beverage at a time when refrigeration was unavailable. Most apple cider produced today is pasteurized, a process that heats the unfiltered apple juice to prevent bacterial contamination. It also destroys any yeast that would cause the juice to ferment creating a more stable non-alcoholic product. In fact, ‘Johnny Appleseed’, the folklore hero born as John Chapman in 1774, planted seeds that produced apples that were only good for hard cider (or applejack), not for eating.

In 1993 The Enfield Historical Society brought a manual cider press to the Old Town Hall Museum. Since we were members of the Society my husband Russ and some friends were enlisted to turn the press.

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Layers of burlap-wrapped apples are squeezed in the manual cider press.

It was a beautiful, sunny fall day, perfect for an outdoor exhibition. Our children and friends were among the crowd that gathered to watch the action. The resultant cider was not distributed as it had not been pasteurized but there were jugs of pre-pressed cider for the enjoyment of all.

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Crates of apples await their turn in the press.

Humans are not the only members of the animal kingdom that appreciate ripening apples. At this time of year, it is almost impossible to get near an apple tree without being in the presence of yellowjacket wasps as they forage for the sugars that are important to their developing queen in late summer. As overly ripe apples fall to the ground the yellowjackets will swarm the fallen fruit.

 

A beautiful Mutsu apple showed the scars of an encounter with yet another species that wanted to feed on the delicious ripening fruit. Although this apple was about 5 feet above the ground an animal, possibly a raccoon, had attempted unsuccessfully to get it.

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Mutsu apple with animal damage.

We, however, picked many Mutsu (also known as Crispin) apples, a very crunchy and sweet variety that is a cross between the Golden Delicious and the Indo cultivars that is great for eating and several pounds of Cortland destined for pies, crisps, and apple butter. Connecticut’s orchards are still going strong so visit the Connecticut Apples site to find one near you and enjoy some of the many delicious varieties that are grown in our state.

Susan Pelton

“ The world’s favorite season is the spring. All things seem possible in May.”

-Edwin Way Teale

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Crabapples along a fence highlight a driveway on Route 85 – May 2017

 

May is usually the time of warmer weather and sunny days that brighten the landscape again with flushes of green leaves and splashes of color from flowers. We look forward to another season of gardening and other outdoor activities, and the encounters with nature that are unavoidable as one ventures outside.

This May has been colder than I would prefer, but at least it has seen more rainfall than last spring. The reason this is especially good news is that the gypsy moth caterpillars have recently hatched, and the rains bring hope that the fungal pathogen, Entomophaga maimaiga, will help diminish populations of this pest. Last year they went unchecked for most of their caterpillar stage as drought conditions kept fungal spores from germinating.

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A Wilson’s warbler stopped by on its way north

Ferns are opening up now and their graceful forms are a welcome decoration wherever they appear. My personal favorites are the scented fern, cinnamon fern and the diminutive polypody which are often found growing together on rocks with mosses. Polypody work well in dish gardens coupled with moss and partridgeberry, and can be brought indoors for the winter, or left outside if that works better.

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Sensitive ferns in a wetland area

 

Most trees have leafed out by now, with the pokey sycamores and hickories lagging behind, as usual. With the flush of leaves come the migrating warblers. Caterpillars are now found eating leaves in the tree canopies, and this is where many of the warblers find some protein for their return to northern breeding grounds. Rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, orioles, and thrushes are all back and they have transformed the woodlands to a symphony of birdsong. Also, barred and great horned owls born in late winter and early spring have left their nests, and parents can often be heard calling to their young. Many robins have already hatched their first brood as of two weeks ago, so it must be true that the early bird gets the worm…

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These young great horned owls left the nest days after this picture was taken.

 

Dogwoods have had spectacular blooms this year, and crabapples and viburnums as well. Yellow water lilies, Nuphar lutea, are beginning to bloom. This plant closes its flower late in the day, trapping beetles or flies overnight who will pollinate it as they try to escape.

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Limber honeysuckle, Lonicera dioica, a native vine-like shrub that is infrequently encountered, is also starting to bloom. The tubular red flowers have distinctive yellow stamens and attract hummingbirds and native bumblebees. Fringed polygala, a small, pink native wildflower with flowers that make me think of Mickey Mouse with an airplane propeller, are just beginning to bloom and are often found together with stands of the native Canada Mayflower. Native columbine are also blooming now and native Pinxter azalea should be following shortly.

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limber honeysuckle

fringed polygala May 13, 2015 Pamm Cooper photo

Fringed polygala

Interesting galls are forming on the young leaves on wild cherry. Spindle galls, caused by the mite Eriophyes emarginatae, are red spindle-like structures of leaf materialcaused by the mites feeding within. These tiny mites begin feeding as soon as cherry leaves expand in the spring. Although they can occur in large numbers, the galls will not stop leaves from photosynthesizing, and the trees will put out new leaves after mites are inactive.

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Spindle galls on a small black cherry

Giant silkworm moths such as Cecropia, Polyphemus and Luna have been overwintering in cocoons and should be eclosing any time from mid- May to June. These spectacular moths usually fly during the night, but are often attracted to lights. Since they cannot feed, if you find any lingering about in the daytime, don’t worry about what to feed them- just enjoy their company!

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Female Cecropia moth

Swallowtail, Painted Lady, American coppers, Juvenal’s duskywing and many other butterflies are out and about. Wherever you see them, check out larval host plants for caterpillars. Sometimes they are as close as your own backyard.

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Jack-in-the-pulpit

Here’s hoping for timely rains during the summer, warmer days to get our blood moving and an abundance of fruits, flowers and birds that to follow May’s fore-running to summer.

 

Pamm Cooper