When my father-in-law was still alive, we’d make an annual pilgrimage to the apple orchards at Oak Glen near Yucaipa. Crowding my three children into a minivan for the long trip was a choice my wife and I made willingly–and once they finally settled in to the two hour trek, the kids were okay with it too. The sniping and poking and complaining eventually faded away.

Among the many small shops at Oak Glen, one can purchase any number of apples and apple derived products, ranging from apple butter to apple syrup. There are places where you can taste the different varieties and sample the fresh cider. And for a small fee, you can go out into the orchards and pick baskets of apples for yourself. Remarkably, our teenage daughters actually enjoyed picking apples.

We also took a ride in a horse drawn wagon on the Riley family farm up there. A tour guide talked about the history of the region and told us a variety of facts about apples. For instance, back around 1884 when a man named Henry G. Wilshire arrived in Los Angeles, he was able to purchase about 3000 acres of land in the area for only eight dollars, plus a jug of whiskey. He’s better known for the boulevard in Los Angeles that’s named after him, of course. The three hundred or so acres that made up the Riley farm were purchased from him some years later.

After unsuccessfully attempting to grow potatoes and a couple of other different crops on those three hundred acres, the Rileys finally settled on apples and have been successful at that for the last hundred years or so. Apples are related to rose bushes. They are relatively small trees ranging between ten and forty feet tall, depending on the sort of apple tree it is. The varieties of apples are called cultivars and there are more than 7500 known cultivars or varieties. The tree originated in central Asia. The wild ancestor of the domesticated apple can still be found growing wild in parts of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and parts of China. The fruit on the wild apple tree looks not much different from the apples you might find on any more familiar modern variety, however. It is believed that apple trees were probably one of the first fruit trees to be domesticated by human beings.

At least 55 million tons of apples are produced each year. Thirty-five percent of the world yield comes from China. The United States is second, with about seven and a half percent of the production.

Apples were first introduced into the United States in the 1600s. Johnny Appleseed, born John Chapman in 1774, was a nurseryman who introduced apple trees to large parts of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Although the popular image of the man is of him scattering seeds at random, in fact he planted nurseries rather than orchards and built fences around them, leaving them in the care of neighbors who sold trees on shares. He would return every year or two to each nursery to tend it. Trees were ordinarily sold on credit. Johnny Appleseed would not press people for payment, however. And he spent his life wandering from place to place, wearing old used clothing. He went barefoot most of the time, even in the winter. And he was always concerned about helping those around him. For instance, if he heard that a horse was going to be put down, he would purchase the animal, buy a field for it to recover in, and then, if it did get better, he’d give the horse to a needy person, exacting a promise from him to treat the horse humanely.

Apples appear in Greek mythology. As one of his twelve labors, Hercules had to travel to the garden of Hesperides and pick the golden apples from the Tree of Life growing at its center. In another myth, the Greek goddess of discord, Eris, became angry when she was not invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. So she took a golden apple, wrote “For the most beautiful one” and tossed it into the middle of the wedding party. The goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite tried to claim the apple. Paris of Troy was then chosen to select the winner. Hera and Athena tried to bribe him, but Aphrodite chose to offer him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta. So he gave the apple to Aphrodite and took Helen from Sparta, thus triggering the Trojan war.

Many believe that Adam and Eve were tempted in the Garden of Eden to eat an apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. However, the biblical story never identifies the fruit. How is it then that so many people think it was an apple? Some have suggested a mixup between the Greek myth about Hercules and the golden apples of the tree of life and the biblical story. This seems possible because of the habit many Renaissance painters had of mixing Greek mythological elements into their paintings of biblical topics. Others have pointed out that the Latin words for “apple” and “evil” are similar in the singular and identical in the plural. More likely, it is simply because in old English (and in several other languages) the word “apple” was a generic word meaning simply “fruit.”

So my family and I had a pleasant day among the apple orchards. We left with many bags full of the red fruit.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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