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Endangered apples: mourn or munch?

Fresh gravenstein Wolves, bears, frogs and other wild things aren't the only sorts of endangered species. Rare breeds of domestic animals such as Red Wattle pigs or Narragansett turkeys are also threatened with extinction. So are thousands of varieties of vegetables and fruits. 

Just as wild plants and animals have their environmental champions, so foodies are seeking to preserve the biodiversity of cultivated species and rescue rare delicacies such as California's Sebastopol Gravenstein apple. The big difference? With endangered foods, you save them by eating them.

A century ago, 1,600 varieties of apples were cultivated in the U.S. Today, grocery shoppers are lucky to find 11 in their local stores. Slow Food Russian River, a Northern California chapter of Slow Food USA, has launched a campaign to promote the crunchy Gravenstein, first brought to California around 1790 by Russian settlers. In the early 1900s, thousands of Gravenstein orchards made Sonoma County the world capital of that tasty variety. Streets and schools were named after the apple, and annual Gravenstein festivals celebrated its delights in pies, juice, vinegar, sauces and brandy.

Today fewer than 10 Sonoma farmers make a living selling apples, according to the group. "It is part of our local agricultural heritage, and yet it is disappearing so fast that it could become commercially extinct."

Six years ago, the Russian River activists applied to the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity which named the Sebastopol Gravenstein one of six "Presidia" projects in the U.S. (Presidia are groups that promote regional foods.) Now the local Apple Corps, a volunteer organization, is working with farmers markets and chefs to develop "high-value marketing channels," publishing on its Slow Food website the photos and phone numbers of Gravenstein growers and links to more than 60 Northern California eateries featuring "Gravs" on their August menus from Berkeley to Yountville.

But if scientists' predictions of the effects of global warming on California agriculture are correct, food preservationists have their work cut out for them. According to a UC Davis study last month, large swaths of the Central Valley, the nation's most productive fruit-and-nut-growing region, will be unsuitable for growing apples, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, walnuts and pistachios by the end of the century.

-- Margot Roosevelt

Photo: Carlo Fonti for Slow Food USA

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I grew up in the Central Valley, and saw both agricultural land loss - due to the construction of generic tract housing -- and the emergence of food monoculture due to corporate ag. I love Gravensteins, and thank Margot for posting this piece.

In my early days of wanting to become an orchardist I visited the Great Sebastopol Gravenstein area for inspiration.
I 'went around the block' several times before finally realizing that it wasn't going to just jump out at me. This was contrary to my childhood memories of driving miles through ever increasing numbers of orchards as we approached Sebastopol.
With Gravenstein being one of my personal favorites I went home committed to making the variety a big part of my orchard.
In the 17 years since starting my orchard I now produce 5 strains of Gravenstein with one of them being a local heirloom (Skagit Valley, Washington) going back to an unknown date possibly much older than the strains popular during the Sebastopol time.
In marketing the Gravenstein I can see that it is pretty much commercially extinct. Below a certain age group, there is no interest in classic heritage apples of unmatched cooking qualities. Heck, why should there be? Almost every piece of press you read or cooking show you see will tell you to go down to your super mart and pick up some Granny's. Despite the fact that a "Granny" has no flavor either cooked or uncooked. The fact that it is always on the store shelf and the TV cooks are completely uneducated means the Gravenstein doesn't stand a chance.
I will continue to produce Gravensteins. I am blessed with the fact that property values here have not sky rocketed as they have in the Sebastopol area but even if they do I will resist selling my farmland and hopefully some miracle will come along and wake people up to the meaning of the bumper sticker "No Farms, No Food".


I grew up in Yorba Linda. All the fruit was uniform in shape, year round. This seemed normal to me.

When I lived in Austria in the 1980s, I was amazed to see all the varieties of apples. My friends stored them in their cellars for year round supply. They all looked different, and tasted so sweet. I was shocked to learn that most apples had small worm holes, but they were fine to eat. It opened my eyes to nature's rhythms and cycles, and changed my perspective.

Concern for preserving nature's variety goes back centuries. This summer, I visited Stiftung Admont in Austria. There we saw an exhibit of 243 wax fruits, including 80 apples, pears, and pflammen (plums). It reminded me again that variety is nature's way of passing along genetic traits, and entrancing us as well.
The Natural History Museum presents all 243 examples of the wax fruits made by Father Constantin Keller (1778-1864) in an impressive installation.

Laura Curran


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