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Nursery Journeyman

On September 26, 1774, Jonathan Chapman aka Johnny Appleseed was born in Massachusetts. A restless, wiry man with some apprenticeship in plant nursery craft, he had a talent for understanding what a tree required and a spiritual desire to live a simple, waste-free life. Perhaps America’s first great recycler.

He began in his twenties from the Ohio Territory at the turn of the 19th century. He carried a yearly load of apple seeds, moving through a variety of haulage options, until, eventually, he carried them on foot. He gathered the seeds from Pennsylvania cider mills to fill his burlap sacks, replacing them with leather bags to ensure the seeds survived their rough passage through the hard underbrush. Sometimes he would buy a tract of land. Sometimes he traded seeds and their planting for food and cast-off clothing. He carried his cooking pot on his head like a cap.

Appleseed stopped at most every spot that fulfilled his requirements – a welcoming soil to plant little apple nurseries, open lands near water, plots with slight enclosures to mark the area. He would return from time to time across the months and years to tend saplings and maturing trees. Appleseed’s activities usually preceded a wave of pioneers. There was a homestead law that required each settler to plant apple trees. When settlers established their own special area, they’d transplant the saplings Appleseed had started in those nursery pens. At the end of about 50 years of apple enterprise, he had managed to introduce apple trees to parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

He taught settlers valuable nursery skills. The apple tree planting called the settlers’ attention to soils and their best use, consideration of prevailing winds, adequate spacing for root growth, the use and recycling of seeds. Of course, the apple trees, being deciduous, did even greater service to their environment. They distribute water and regulate water cycles by moving moisture from soil to atmosphere. They absorb carbon dioxide and return oxygen to the air. They modify temperature, reduce soil erosion and recycle nutrients while providing food and shelter for the species in their environments.

Apple trees in full pink apple blossom, the promise of apples to come.
Apple trees in full pink apple blossom, the promise of apples to come.

In helping others learn to care for and befriend a large plant’s growth, Appleseed fostered respect for and appreciation of things botanical. His memory continues to be honoured through these Midwest lands in statues, memorial parks, museums, school names, ecology clubs, and autumn apple festivals.

Amazing what one man can do. One seed at a time.


B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage