The Lineage of an Apple Tree

Photo Sarah Whiting

There is an old apple tree on the family farm site in northern Minnesota where my mother’s family once lived. Sturdy and twisted, the tree is no longer fully fruit bearing, but there are still several branches that bud in warmer weather, shoots of green reaching out towards the light that lingers longer from spring and into the summer. 

Last autumn, my mother picked a bag of apples from the family tree up north and brought them home, sharing some with me, small and pink-red with stripes of grass green shining through the skin. 

The bag of apples represented something more complex than knowing and understanding more about the food we eat and where it comes from. It hinted at something individual and familiar.

It felt meaningful that the apples had provided sustenance to the families of my grandmothers and aunts going back for generations. I imagined apple butter and crisps, sauces and jellies — hands kneading and patting, offering, nourishing. 

I loved how these apples held easily in the hand, completely unlike the mammoth, shiny varieties piled high in supermarket displays. Firm to the touch with the promise of crispness, this matrilineal inheritance of apples offered a taste of something less complicated. I found I did not want to eat the apples as much as preserve a legacy of food passed down from one generation to the next, a line that could be traced for decades into the past and the future. 

I ate my small stash of apples out of hand, surely romanticizing their incomparable sweetness and crispness, finishing the seeds, the core, the blossom end. 

My mom used her share of the fruit for an apple crisp, but she also (surreptitiously) extracted and dried the apple seeds and placed them in bags of damp dirt and wet moss. Executing the type of preservation I had in mind, she exposed them to the cold in the simulated winter of her refrigerator drawer, deep in the depths of the vegetable crisper, two dozen small packages, the seeds of possibility. 

She potted them in soil where they took over an entire table through the late winter that couldn’t quite release its hold on spring. We wondered at the tenacity of the small sprouts that fought through the dirt in March and April, struggling through the never-ending winter along with the rest of us. 

The 24 pots became 15, and then 12, dwindling down to the single digit of just six plants. At the end of spring, only three small, resilient plants remained. 

The advice on their successful growth like a mantra for self-care: Pay attention. Be gentle. Protect from the elements. For new growth, cut back. Water is a necessity. Sunlight is important. Let roots strengthen.

I’m hoping for one of the seedlings. My sister has staked a claim on one for her yard. 

My mother has cousins in the Twin Cities and up north who have an interest in genealogy and would be interested in caring for a direct descendant of the old apple tree. Not as a necessity, or as something any of us depend on to feed or sustain our families or earn a living, but as a personal way to strengthen our ties to our own roots. 

It’s June, and I’m imagining the twisted old apple tree up north, those few shoots of green reaching out towards the light, continuing to thrive, to offer, to nourish. 

Tami Mohamed Brown lives in Bloomington with her family.