During the 1500s, Spanish explorers brought apples to Mexico and South America, and the fruit spread throughout the New World, eventually reaching the Appalachian region, where the Cherokee people – already adept farmers – quickly recognized its potential.
“Sustainability was our people’s number one rule in all things,” said Juanita Wilson, standing next to a freshly dug hole just off Franklin’s Little Tennessee River Greenway. “So they made sure to develop species of apples that would withstand the weather, that were hardy, that the environments were right to keep them thriving for generations to come.”
Origins of the Apple Trail
The hole beside which Wilson – a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and co-chairman of the Nikwasi Initiative – stood on the sunny morning of Saturday, March 7, now contains a small apple tree, one of 11 heritage fruit trees from the 20 – a few volunteers huddled in the ground that day. Funded by a grant from the Blue Ridge Natural Heritage Area, the effort was the result of a partnership including the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Mountain True, Friends of the Greenway and the Nikwasi Initiative.
The result, named the Barbara McRae Cherokee Heritage Apple Trail, honors a pillar of the Franklin community who died in 2021.
“Barbara just brought such a ray of sunshine to everything,” Wilson said. “Whether we’re talking about controversy or not, she’s always been the one who looked beyond what could happen. And here we are. We’re starting to heal with every shovelful.
The controversy that gave rise to the Nikwasi initiative arose a decade ago when the city of Franklin – which then owned Nikwasi Mound – sprayed the sacred Cherokee monument with herbicide in an effort to destroy it. establish a different variety of grass. What followed was an intense exchange between Franklin and Cherokee leaders that years later resulted in the creation of the non-profit Nikwasi Initiative – which includes both Franklin residents and members. of the Cherokee Tribe – to manage the site. McRae was instrumental in brokering the deal.
McRae was also an avid student of history, especially history involving the Cherokee people and their beloved town of Franklin. While alive, McRae began researching the history of apple growing among the Cherokees. The Barbara McRae Cherokee Heritage Apple Trail honors the fruit of her efforts.
“I can, I just can’t understand how much was in that brain about my people that I didn’t know,” Wilson said of McRae. “It was pretty cool getting to know her. It really deepens my love and hunger for more.
So far, four varieties of heirloom apples are planted along the apple trail, along with two peach trees. The Nikwasi initiative is working with the Cherokee Speakers Council to develop interpretive panels to accompany them, in English and Cherokee, explaining the meaning and history of the apples featured.
The Junaluska apple ripens in October each year. Photo of Horne Creek Farm
A permanent search
All project partners want to see more apple trees join the existing stock, but it will take time, patience and a lot of research to complete this task.
“We only scratched the surface of this project to find out what was really of Cherokee descent,” said David Anderson, supervisor of horticultural operations for EBCI.
A self-proclaimed apple nerd, Anderson was already interested in tracing the history of Cherokee apple growing when Nikwasi Initiative Director Elaine Eisenbaum approached him about the Apple Trail project, asking for his help. to find plants to plant.
Anderson accepted the charge with enthusiasm, but it was no small task. Unlike many other crops, apple cultivars do not pass on their characteristics reliably via seed. Propagating them requires finding a live specimen, taking cuttings, and grafting those cuttings onto a rootstock.
Anderson spent hours searching for source materials, eventually stumbling upon Horne Creek Farm, a state historic site north of Winston-Salem that maintains a Southern Heritage apple orchard. From there he procured the seedlings of Junaluska, Cullasaja, Nickajack and Horse which the volunteers planted this month. In total, he’s working with six or seven different locations in hopes of eventually getting all of the varieties that his research suggests likely originated in Cherokee orchards — or, in the case of the Horse apple, originated elsewhere. but have become culturally significant in Cherokee communities.
A volunteer cuts down invasive plants encroaching on the orchard. Photo by Holly Kays
Once they adopted the apple as their own, the Cherokee had tremendous success growing it, Anderson said, along with countless other crops. Prior to the move, the tribe conducted its own internal agricultural census.
“It showed that there was a surplus of food in the Cherokee Nation at that time,” he said. “They were adopting European agricultural strategies and were really, really successful with them.”
But when they were forced off their land and on the murderous Trail of Tears in the 1830s, much of this rich horticultural tradition was left behind, forgotten or appropriated.
“Some of the most famous nurserymen in the South came to Cherokee country after their eviction to find Cherokee genetics to work with,” Anderson said.
From there, the story gets murky. With the Cherokee separated from their lands and their cultivars in the hands of non-native arborists, names were changed, genetics altered and the chain of custody broken. Anderson dove deep into historical records of all kinds, trying to uncover historic Cherokee apple varieties and reunite Cherokee cultivars with their original Cherokee names.
“North Carolina is perhaps the pinnacle of apple conservation in the United States in that it has several conservation-type orchards that really focus on preserving what we know today as southern apple and fruit varieties,” Anderson said.
Even so, the story is incomplete and the contemporary storyline is often a race against time.
“Once we lose those tastes and flavors, there’s no way to get them back,” he said.
Having experienced first-hand the difficulty of tracking down these rare varieties, Anderson hopes the Apple Trail effort will mean that in the future, these ancient flavors will be available on roadsides and backyards across the region.
“We’re going to be able to put them back in the hands of the community, so we never have to have this discussion again, hopefully, about where we’re fighting to find these trees,” he said. “We hope to have households all over the Qualla border and surrounding areas that have these trees on their property.”
The Apple Trail is a way to bring those apples home and translate the spirit of cooperation that worked so well hundreds of years ago in trade and agricultural innovation into one that replaces the science and economics to get to the heart of what it means to be a community.
“I think we’re honoring the ancestors now,” Wilson said, “Recognizing what was here, what was good for all citizens — Appalachia, Cherokee, Scots. We know they were all residents, and they still are. So for me, it’s almost like a unification.
Find the Apple Trail
The Barbara McRae Cherokee Heritage Apple Trail is located at the half-mile marker of the Little Tennessee River Greenway in Franklin. To get there, start at the Big Bear parking lot and turn left. After half a mile the orchard will be off trail on the left. Fruit trees take a while to mature, so apple eating shouldn’t start for about five years.