Archived Outdoors

Reclaiming the tastes of home: Apple Trail effort resurrects legacy of Cherokee orchardists

Juanita Wilson (right) and Bob McCollum, co-chairs of the Nikwasi Initiative, plant a tree along the new Barbara McRae Cherokee Heritage Apple Trail March 7. Holly Kays photo Juanita Wilson (right) and Bob McCollum, co-chairs of the Nikwasi Initiative, plant a tree along the new Barbara McRae Cherokee Heritage Apple Trail March 7. Holly Kays photo

The capital of Kazakhstan, Alma Ata, translates to “full of apples” — an homage to the country’s heritage as the birthplace  of the now-ubiquitous fruit. In the approximately three-quarters of a million years since people first discovered wild sour crab apples in a central Asian forest, the apple has traveled the world, splitting into 7,500 varieties as diverse as the orchardists responsible for breeding them, separated by miles and millennia.

Sometime in the 1500s, Spanish explorers brought apples to Mexico and South America, and the fruit spread throughout the New World, eventually hitting the Appalachian region, where the Cherokee people — already adept agriculturists — quickly recognized its potential. 

“Sustainability was the number one rule of our people in all things,” said Juanita Wilson, standing beside a freshly dug hole a little way off Franklin’s Little Tennessee River Greenway. “So they made sure that they developed apple species that would withstand the weather, that were hardy, that the environments were conducive for keeping them flourishing 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-chair of the Nikwasi Initiative — stood on the sunny morning of Saturday, March 7, now holds a tiny apple tree, one of 11 heirloom fruit trees the 20-some volunteers nestled 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,” said Wilson. “Whether we were talking about controversy or not, she was always the one who looked beyond that to what could happen. And here we are. We’re starting to start to heal with every shovelful of dirt.”

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The controversy that birthed the Nikwasi Initiative occurred a decade ago when the Town of Franklin — which at the time owned Nikwasi Mound — sprayed herbicide  on the sacred Cherokee landmark in an effort to establish a different variety of grass there. What followed was an intense exchange  between Franklin and Cherokee leaders that, years later, resulted in creation of the non-profit Nikwasi Initiative — which includes both Franklin locals and Cherokee tribal members — to steward the site . McRae was instrumental in brokering the agreement. 

McRae was also an avid student of history, especially history that involved the Cherokee people and her beloved town of Franklin. While she was alive, McRae began researching the Cherokees’ history of apple cultivation. The Barbara McRae Cherokee Heritage Apple Trail honors the fruit of her efforts. 

“I can I just can’t fathom how much there was in that brain about my people that I didn’t know,” Wilson said of McRae. “It was pretty cool to get to know her. It really deepens my love and my thirst to know more.”

So far, four heirloom apple varieties are planted along the apple trail, along with two peach trees. The Nikwasi Initiative is working with the Cherokee Speakers Council to develop interpretive signs to go with them, in both English and Cherokee, explaining the significance and history of the featured apples. 

 

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The Junaluska apple ripens in October each year. Horne Creek Farm photo

 

An ongoing search 

All the partners in the project want to see more apple trees join the existing stock, but it will take time, patience and lots of research to complete that task. 

“We’ve really only scratched the surface of this project to know what was really of Cherokee origin,” said David Anderson, horticultural operation supervisor for the EBCI. 

A self-professed apple nerd, Anderson was already interested in tracking down the history of Cherokee’s apple culture when Nikwasi Initiative Director Elaine Eisenbaum approached him about the Apple Trail project, asking for his help with finding seedlings to plant. 

Anderson accepted the charge with enthusiasm, but it was no small task. Unlike many other crops, apple cultivars don’t reliably pass along their characteristics via seeds. Propagating them requires finding a living specimen, taking cuttings and grafting those cuttings on to root stock. 

Anderson spent hours looking for source materials, eventually hitting on Horne Creek Farm , a state historical site north of Winston-Salem that maintains an orchard of Southern heritage apples. From there, he procured the Junaluska, Cullasaja, Nickajack and Horse seedlings that volunteers planted this month. In total, he’s working with six or seven different locations in hopes of eventually securing all the varieties that his research indicates likely originated from Cherokee orchardists — or, in the case of the Horse apple, originated elsewhere but became culturally important in Cherokee communities. 

 

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A volunteer chainsaws invasive plants encroaching on the orchard. Holly Kays photo

 

Disjointed history 

Once they adopted the apple as their own, the Cherokee people had enormous success with cultivating it, Anderson said — along with countless other crops. Before the removal, the tribe was conducting its own internal agriculture census. 

“It showed there was a surplus of food in the Cherokee Nation at that time,” he said. “They were adopting European farming strategies and really, really succeeding with them.”

But when they were forced to leave their land and walk the deadly Trail of Tears  in the 1830s, much of that rich horticultural tradition was left behind, forgotten or appropriated. 

“Some of the most famous nurserymen of the South came to Cherokee country after removal to find Cherokee genetics to work with,” said Anderson.  

From there, history gets murky. With the Cherokee separated from their land and their cultivars in the hands of non-indigenous orchardists, names were changed, genetics tweaked and the chain of custody broken. Anderson has been diving deep into historical documents of all kinds, attempting to uncover historical Cherokee apple varieties and reunite Cherokee cultivars with their original Cherokee names. 

“North Carolina may be the pinnacle of apple conservation in the United States as far as having several conservation-type orchards that really focus on preserving what we know today as Southern apples and fruit varieties,” said Anderson. 

Even so, the history 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 that the Apple Trail effort will mean that, in the future, those 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 don’t have to have this discussion ever again, hopefully, to where we’re fighting to find these trees,” he said. “We’re hopefully going to have households all over the Qualla Boundary and the surrounding areas that have these trees on their property.”

The Apple Trail is a way to bring those apples home again, and to translate the spirit of cooperation that worked so well hundreds of years ago when it came to trade and agricultural innovation into one that supersedes science and economics to reach the core of what it means to be a community. 

“I think that we’re honoring the ancestors now,” said Wilson, “Recognizing what used to be here, what was beneficial to all the citizens — Appalachian people, Cherokee people, Scottish people. We know they all were residents, and still are. So to 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 to the left. Fruit trees take a while to mature, so the apple munching isn’t expected to start for about five years. 

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