This is a story about how one small flower can create a landscape.
Apple blossoms come to Adams County in Pennsylvania at the end of April. At first the bud has a magenta patina, but as it unfurls, it expands into subtle hues. Pale pink streaks across five creamy teardrop petals. At its heart, fuzzy yellow polliniferous stamens surround an erect and sticky stigma.
This small flower creates the iconic landscape called the South Mountain Fruit Belt. Apples are in the Rosaceae family with roses. But unlike their showy cousins, apple blossoms are built for work. Don’t get me wrong, in Arendtsville the flowers are celebrated every May with an Apple Blossom Festival as they paint the landscape. Still, their true fame is fecundity, with large fleshy fruits being the autumn issue of their spring fling.
Apple blossoms cluster on last year’s wood. Thirty or more cover the end of a branch, or a dozen blossoms sprout on a spur. Stout earthy-grey branches hold aloft a gaudy display, with each flower vying for attention. Not every one will become a fruit, but the profusion of flowers ensures good pollination of many. Around them, the bright green of new leaves completes a spring palette. These leaves grow and spread with chlorophyll, preparing for the work of the year. They are the engines of the landscape. By late summer they will be moss-green leather before turning into russet confetti, but now everything is new industry.
The trees are living sculptures. The branches pruned into scaffolding to support heavy fruit. Apple trees in Adams County come in many shapes. None of them are natural — human ingenuity has created these forms. I thought I knew about pruning apple trees, but looking at the individuals, I realize this specialized knowledge goes beyond what I have read in a book. A cultivated apple tree is a cutting of a select variety grafted onto healthy rootstock. This has the advantage of ensuring a perfect clone, dwarfing the tree, and speeding the time to fruiting. If the work of the rootstock below ground is a mystery, the work above ground is a marvel. The one clear rule is to thin and remove crossing branches to let light and air circulate around the tree. Other rules elude me. Some trees are cut wide, with a short trunk and strong lateral branches creating a large sturdy brandy snifter. Other trees are kept narrow and tall with a central trunk and short fruiting branches jabbing off. I notice these tend to have whiter flowers and ponder if different varieties have engendered different techniques. Landscape exploration with an inquisitive eye always leads to more questions.
These living sculptures are not solitary; rather there is a legion of them. The apple trees muster into rows, and the rows marshal into orchards. Wide spacing in the orchard allows people and equipment and mountain breezes to move about easily while tending to business. Orchards in central Pennsylvania owe their origins to German immigrants who moved in and established agrarian communities. A common feature of these farmsteads was a fruit orchard. Fruit orchards did particularly well in southeasterly facing foothills for a variety of reasons and took over the landscape.
The South Mountain Fruit Belt is an arc of low hills protected by the mountain. It is defined by 13,000 acres of cultivated apples, Malus domestica, but it also has significant acreages of pear, peach, plum, and cherry orchards. The fruit belt thrives here, in part, because of the tempering effect of the mountain on the piedmont air. Late frosts that would kill the apple blossoms would also make this landscape untenable. Fortunately, these middle elevation hills are protected by the mountain from cold spring air on the north and west. And when a late frost does come, the colder air tends to settle in the lowlands of the county around Gettysburg. When apple blossoms are protected from late frosts, the productive landscape is protected.
The orchards create a mosaic, giving a structure to the countryside. In the springtime the hills wear in a patchwork of pastel corduroy. Thirteen thousand acres of apple blossoms paints an impressionistic landscape. It’s easy to get lost in this place.
Farmsteads sit in the dell, but there is not much activity to be seen. It feels quiet and intimate. Pausing to take in the view, you sense that you’ve happened into someone’s private domain.
Apple blossom season is a time of pregnant expectation. The dormant time of planting and pruning is over. Old orchards have already been ripped out; the skeletons of fruit trees piled up. And the industrious time of picking and packing, with people and trucks buzzing about, is yet to come. Right now there are billions of apple blossoms, with the gentle assist of pollinating insects, doing the work.
It is true apple blossoms make the landscape more beautiful, but what is truly important is that they make the landscape.