Florida family is making jelly from only fruit traced to Johnny Appleseed

Paul Bunyan, not real.

John Henry, possibly real.

Johnny Appleseed, totally real.

This American legend, born John Chapman, was a missionary for the New Church and a nurseryman who introduced apple trees to big swaths of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Ontario and what is now West Virginia. He was born in 1774 and died in 1845, and somewhere between 1837 and 1845 he planted an apple tree on the property of the Algeo family in Nova, Ohio.

Chapman had once slept in the barn adjacent to the tree, which eventually grew to an impressive 4 feet in diameter. The Champaign County Historical Society authenticated that apple tree. And in 1994, Jacksonville nurseryman and tree historian Jeffrey Meyer got involved.

"I did a program called Famous and Historic Trees, collecting seed from trees like George Washington's Tulip Poplar or Elvis Presley's Pin Oak," Meyer said. "I collected from 180 different historic trees, and Johnny Appleseed's turned out to be one of them. This was one of the only fruit-bearing trees; most of the rest were native American trees like sycamores and live oak."

He took cuttings in 1994, and sometime in the early 2000s, a storm brought down the tree. It's a fat stump now with tendrilly suckers.

But in a way, it lives on.

Meyer grafted buds onto 1,000 trees on a friend's farm in Grants Pass, Ore. Of those, 654 are mature, fruit-producing trees now, the only remaining fruits that can be tracked back directly to Johnny Appleseed.

And in September, Meyer and his son Scott from their Congaree and Penn Farm in Jacksonville began selling Johnny Appleseed Authentic apple jelly, a clear golden jelly with just enough vinegar in it that it might go well with pork chops or on a fancy smoky meat sandwich.

• • • 

Necessity being the mother of invention, the Meyers' story is a twisty one. Jeffrey started his Jacksonville farm raising live oaks for landscape trees, but during the recession of the past decade, the market for landscape trees dried up. Scott suggested rice.

"The farm seemed to be a little puddly," Scott explained. "We leveled out 4 acres one acre at a time at different elevations to make terraces."

It started in 2014 as the country's smallest rice farm, growing Jupiter rice, a plump, medium-grain with origins in Japan. Then they started milling it on site to make chunky rice grits and flour. Almost immediately, the best restaurants in the Jacksonville area got in line. In Tampa, Rooster & the Till has bought the rice, and it has traveled as far as the Seattle restaurants of celebrity chef Edouardo Jordan (a St. Petersburg native). 

But Scott had other interests as well.

"I was looking at native plants as a direction I wanted to go," he said.

Plants like Mayhaw. 

Mayhaw is an underappreciated indigenous fruit tree of the lower Southern states. Similar to a crab apple, its small, bright red fruit has the acidity of a cranberry but is a little more like grape on the finish. Mayhaw proponents tend to be hobbyist jelly producers, foraging the fruit April through May (thus the name) in the bayous and wetlandy bits of Louisiana, Texas and Florida.

"Most of the mayhaw growers are old men with maybe five or 10 trees," Scott said. "We planted in 2015. We've got 2,500 trees in the orchard and grafted another 1,000 in March that we'll be planting."

The market for mayhaw jelly and other products is not exactly known -- surely Florida old-timers will be enthusiastic, but Scott is hoping chefs will embrace the sweet-tart products of this indigenous fruit.

So, smallest rice farm and mill, plus Scott claims now to have the largest mayhaw orchard in the world. And there's more. In 2016, Congaree and Penn began juicing seasonal fruit from local farms to make shrubs. These are fruit syrups which can be the base of refreshing non-alcoholic drink or a flavor component in a cocktail, an American Colonial invention aimed at preserving fruit long past its picking.

"We have five out currently," Scott said, "but we've done 10 different ones -- blackberry and satsuma, muscadine, blueberry, meyer lemon, strawberry and key lime and a Creole tomato shrub."

• • •

Johnny Appleseed's orchards were often used for cider production. During Prohibition, the FBI cut down most of Johnny Appleseed's orchards in an attempt to prevent the production of homemade cider. The one in Nova, Ohio, must have escaped notice.

According to Jeffrey, cider apples tended to be more tart and acidic than eating apples. The Johnny Appleseed Authentic variety, he said, is more like an Albemarle Pippin or Granny Smith, only a little squattier. Not as sweet as modern apples, Scott said the J.A. Authentic is higher in protein and fleshier, with a unique flavor.

Florida's climate doesn't lend itself to apples. In order to set buds in the spring, apples need an extensive chill period, something that's in short supply in the Sunshine State. For the Meyers, this Oregon-Florida collaboration is a way to produce a Florida apple product, but also a way to connect with a historic figure.

"Similar to myself and my son," Jeffrey wrote, "Johnny Appleseed was an entrepreneur and I always respected him for escaping traditional norms. He was a frontiersman who owned and settled more than 1,200 acres of American land, he was an avid animal activist, a vegetarian and was incredibly forward thinking for his time. In many ways, his values and the life that he led are still incredibly relevant in the 21st century."

According to Scott, the 2016 harvest was made into the current jelly inventory (about 300 jars), which they began selling at the beginning of September. They begin pressing this year's apple harvest in early October, cooking the jelly later in the month. 

They hope to produce 1,500 to 2,000 jars this year. It's a tiny production, something that merits the oft-overused word "artisanal." They don't know if the jelly will take off, but for now this pair of Jacksonville farmers is offering a little taste of history.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. 


Great-Great-Great-Grandma Algeo's Applesauce Cookies

This recipe was purportedly made by Algeo for Johnny Appleseed during a visit in which he slept in the family barn.

¾ cup shortening, softened

1 cup brown sugar, packed

1 egg

½ cup applesauce

2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour, sifted

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

¾ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

1 cup seedless raisins

½ cup chopped walnuts

Heat oven to 375 degrees.

Mix the shortening, brown sugar and egg thoroughly in a bowl. Stir in the applesauce. 

Combine the dry ingredients in another bowl, then blend into the shortening/sugar/egg mixture. Mix in the raisins and walnuts. 

Drop spoonfuls of batter onto a greased baking sheet. Bake for 12 minutes.

Makes 4 dozen cookies.

Source: America's Famous and Historic Trees by Jeffrey Meyer

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